Reporter called to testify at drug trial

At issue is whether Washington confessed during an interview

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A news story about Aaron Washington, who law enforcement officials have accused of being a "ringleader" in Juneau's drug trade, became the focus during part of the first day of his trial Monday.

The bulk of the day was spent winnowing the jury pool.

At issue with the news report is whether Washington, 42, confessed to Juneau Empire reporter Greg Skinner, during an interview at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center several weeks ago. Washington was held at the prison while awaiting trial for allegedly distributing cocaine.

He also is awaiting a September trial to face charges that he and co-defendant Vonnie Williams ran a criminal enterprise that authorities say imported and sold pounds of cocaine in town since 2003.

The organized crime case is thought to be the first of its kind in Juneau, and the arrest and judicial proceedings of both men have drawn considerable community interest and a number of news reports.

In an article printed in Monday's Juneau Empire, Washington said authorities had falsely identified him as a leader of Juneau's illegal drug trade, which had not slowed down since his arrest.

The article stated: "Careful with his words, Washington said he wasn't exactly 'innocent' either."

Then Washington was quoted as saying: "It's not like I've never done anything wrong."

Skinner, who is the Empire's crime reporter and was covering the trial, was subpoenaed Monday morning in the courtroom by Juneau District Attorney Doug Gardner's office. Gardner later explained to the court that the statements made in the article "possibly inculpates" Washington.

"I think that when a newspaper chooses to print portions of things that certainly suggest that a witness has relevant information such as a confession, the state has no choice but to subpoena that witness," Gardner told the court.

Washington's attorney, William Carey, said his client's comments in the newspaper could be taken "a couple of different ways" and the article was "peripheral" to the trial. He asked that Skinner not be called to testify.

But Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg disagreed and said that more information was needed from Skinner.

"It's unfortunate that the article doesn't include the context that would allow one to determine whether Mr. Washington confessed to him or not," Pallenberg said. "It certainly creates the impression of that."

On Monday evening, Skinner said in a telephone interview that he didn't think the article was ambiguous or that there was any implied guilt in the story.

"Washington did not confess to me," he said.

The Empire's lawyer, Budd Simpson, said he plans to file a motion to quash the subpoena calling on Skinner to testify, citing Alaska's shield law that protects a reporter from having to reveal a confidential source.

News reports also were an issue during the lengthy jury selection, which is scheduled to resume this morning. Lawyers for both sides quizzed several potential jurors if newspaper or radio stories about this and other related cases had tainted their view of Washington.

Most said the reports had not hindered their ability to be fair.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail

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