Lawyers for Chicago police seek notes of Wash. journalism professor who questioned boy’s guilt

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chicago police seek notes of Washington professor

SEATTLE — Lawyers for Chicago police officers being sued by an exonerated murder convict have subpoenaed the notes of a Western Washington University journalism professor who 16 years ago wrote stories questioning his guilt.

Assistant professor Carolyn Nielsen was a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1994 when she wrote stories that questioned the trial and conviction of Thaddeus Jimenez. Her lawyer told The Seattle Times on Friday she does not intend to turn over her notes or letters from Jimenez.

Jimenez was 13 when he was arrested and charged with the fatal street shooting of an 18-year-old Chicago man. Despite a secretly recorded confession by someone else, Jimenez was charged, convicted after two trials and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Last year, after key witnesses against him recanted, Jimenez was exonerated by a group of lawyers who say Nielsen’s reporting spurred their interest in the case. Now free, Jimenez has sued the Chicago Police Department and six of its officers for false arrest.

Nielsen wrote on her blog that she was thrilled at the exoneration and had stayed in touch with Jimenez.

“It was the only instance in my journalism career in which I switched from reporter to advocate,” she wrote on May 4, 2009. “More than 14 years later, I still have my original draft, my notes and letters TJ (Jimenez) sent me when I interviewed him via mail.”

That sentence caught the attention of lawyers representing the Chicago officers. They subpoenaed the documents this month, hoping to find details to back their assertion that the investigation and arrest were reasonable.

They note that at his 1994 trial, a letter Jimenez wrote to his girlfriend was introduced in which he said he was going to have a friend stop a witness from testifying “in anyway he has to, even if he has to kill him. It won’t mean anything to me. And it only takes the pull of a trigger.”

For reasons unclear, Nielsen deleted from her blog the sentence about still having the notes and letters. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle issued an order to Nielsen to “preserve all documents responsive to the defendant’s subpoena.”

Eric Stahl, one of Nielsen’s attorneys, said Nielsen intends to fight the subpoena and will claim reporter’s privilege regarding the letters and notes. There is no federal reporter’s shield law, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized that journalists enjoy some protection in revealing sources or notes, particularly if the material can be gathered elsewhere.

Nielsen acknowledged she still has the documents and promised to preserve them. She declined to discuss their contents.

“It doesn’t matter what is in them,” she said. “As a reporter, my notes are my notes.”

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