Crime & Courts

Reporter challenges order to reveal sources

The attorney for a Dodge City reporter ordered to reveal confidential sources and testify about a jailhouse interview of a murder suspect plans to challenge the judge's ruling, arguing that the court misinterpreted long-standing precedent.

The legal maneuvering comes as his client vows she is willing to go to jail in an unfolding drama with First Amendment implications for Kansas media and the public they serve.

Dodge City Globe reporter Claire O'Brien said the ruling is particularly chilling to news gathering in Kansas because the judge ruled that the information held by the reporter must only be "relevant" to a criminal case to be subject to discovery.

The ruling is significant because in the past Kansas judges had applied a balancing test to determine whether the need for the information outweighed the reporter's privilege of confidentiality, providing at least limited legal protection. Kansas does not have a so-called media shield law.

At the heart of the subpoena is material relating to a story published in the Dodge City Globe following a jailhouse interview with Sam Bonilla, charged with second-degree murder in the Labor Day shooting death of Steven Holt and the attempted murder of Tanner Brunson in Dodge City.

Bonilla, who is Hispanic, reportedly told O'Brien that he acted in self-defense after the two victims, both white, tried to run him down while he was jogging with two children along the Arkansas River.

The Globe story alluded that the incident has stirred up anti-Hispanic sentiment. It quoted Rebecca Escalante, the bails bondsman who got O'Brien into the jail, as saying she would have bonded Bonilla out of jail if she were not concerned for his safety.

It also cited confidential sources saying that one of the shooting victims has a "base of support that is well-known for its anti-Hispanic beliefs" and has a supply of semiautomatic weapons.

O'Brien has been ordered to testify at a Jan. 5 inquisition, the Kansas equivalent of a grand jury.

The newspaper intends to ask for a stay and appeal the case to the Kansas Court of Appeals, said William Hurst, the attorney representing Globe owner GateHouse Media Kansas Holdings II Inc.

"Going to jail is something I am able to do and willing to do," O'Brien said.

For years, Kansas lawmakers have shown little interest in passing a shield law, demanding an example that one is needed. Richard Gannon, a lobbyist for the Kansas Press Association, said the imprisonment of a Kansas reporter for refusing to divulge confidential sources would help convince legislators that one is needed to protect the people's right to know.

"I hate to see it have to go to that extreme, but it would help," Gannon said. "Let's be honest about this... when it comes to the Legislature, there is a lot of theatrics involved."

O'Brien, who has worked at the Globe just nine months, said one of those confidential sources called her recently, quite anxious that she might disclose his name, and she reassured him that she would not.

"Every time I try to work myself through giving the information, I just can't imagine myself being able to compromise my professional reputation to that extent.... Who would trust me again?" she said.

Ford County Attorney Terry Malone said there are two separate ongoing inquisitions — one involving the shootings and the other into the alleged threats against Bonilla published in the Oct. 13 story.

"In that story I read as county prosecutor for the first time that people have information that Mr. Bonilla himself may be in danger from other people that have anti-Hispanic beliefs, and so the Globe reporter has information about that which she is unwilling to give us that I find to be rather inexplicable," Malone said. "I would think the normal person if they heard somebody may be in harm's way that they would want to give that information to police."

O'Brien said, "If I truly felt I had information about the murder of a human being on which part of a case could turn, it would be very sobering. I would have to think long and hard and I am not sure I would withhold that, but the fact is I am absolutely sure in my mind the prosecutor is bullying me."

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