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Empire Editorial: Leave reporters out of it

Posted: October 4, 2013 - 8:22am

Both sides of an odd and rather shaky trial before Judge Philip Pallenberg took potshots at the First Amendment yesterday. Only Pallenberg’s wisdom kept the Juneau Empire’s crime reporter in the courtroom, although at one point she was on the witness stand and had her own attorney present.

This was just another bizarre turn of events in the trial of Jesse H. Boone. He stands accused of four felony counts for two alleged attacks. On Tuesday, when the woman he was accused of attacking was cross examined, she said she made the first attack up and had lied to the grand jury — but she claimed the second attack really happened.

A jury will have to decide whether Lori Funk was truthful in her first account of the initial alleged attack, or in her testimony that she lied and injured herself the first time. Pallenberg ruled Thursday he would not drop the first two felony charges.

We’re not sure why the Empire and its attorney got dragged into the judicial guts of this sordid mess, but we did. A prosecutor tried to have our reporter barred from covering the case when the defense tried to make the reporter a part of their defense.

Empire reporter Emily Russo Miller was subpoenaed by an assistant public defender on Thursday after she reported that, after leaving the courtroom Tuesday, the key witness was on the ground, crying. Not exactly a damning thing to do, we think, having a good cry after giving wrenching testimony and admitting to perjury.

The move by the defense to call the reporter to the stand was, potentially, a present for the assistant district attorney on the case. Was the assistant DA motivated to bar the reporter by a sense of fairness to the accused, or just a great chance to get a reporter out of the way?

The reporter had to explain to the judge without counsel why she should be allowed to cover the case, and how she’d still gather information from court records if locked out.

But Miller was compelled to testify, and when she did the defense asked about just the one crying incident. The prosecution had no questions for her.

The impact of ambushing the reporter was that, in arranging for counsel with her bosses and the Empire’s attorney, she missed some of the proceedings. The prosecution may have had noble intentions, but the impact on journalists in Alaska had the judge barred Miller from covering the proceedings would be huge — a chilling precedent indeed.

Attorneys for either party can’t be allowed to use reporters as strategic pawns or attempt to link to a newspaper’s reputation to bolster their case. Worse, they simply can’t be given a means to target and foul up a reporter and avoid coverage on a given day by trying to make them part of the case they are covering. Had this become a precedent, unscrupulous attorneys on either side could certainly use the tactic to their advantage in the future.

A free and independent press is necessary to safeguard democracy and keep the news flowing. Examples of overreach, such as using a reporter for leverage in a trial or trying to boot one out of a courtroom, are an affront to the First Amendment and an attack on newsgathering.

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