• U.S.

The Press: Trial Reporter on Trial

3 minute read

During the Charles Manson trial in the fall of 1970, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Reporter William T. Farr obtained and published details from a prosecution witness’s pretrial statement. The material was sensational: it told of the Manson group’s plans to murder several celebrities (Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes were to be mailed to an ex-husband; Frank Sinatra was to be flayed alive). Trial Judge Charles H. Older, who had previously prohibited lawyers and others involved from giving out information on the case, decided to punish the source of the leak. He asked Farr to identify the offender. The reporter promptly refused, claiming immunity under Section 1070 of the California Evidence Code, which protects newsmen from contempt citations for keeping sources confidential. There, apparently, the matter ended.

Seven months later, however, when Farr left the Herald-Examiner for a public relations job, the persistent judge subpoenaed him, claiming that he had not only lost the protection of Section 1070 but that he was also an accessory to a violation of the court’s gag order. Although Farr submitted the names of six attorneys and said that his sources were among them (under oath all denied involvement), Judge Older ordered him jailed until he specified his informants. In December 1971, Section 1070 was amended to shield former newsmen from contempt citations, but that same month, in upholding Older’s decision, a state appeals court ruled that the “vital power of the court to control its own proceedings and officers” was paramount. If the Evidence Code interfered with that judicial right, the decision added, the code would be unconstitutional.

Adamant. Allowed to remain free while his appeals continued, Farr took a job with the Los Angeles Times and waited. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court declined—without comment—to review his case, and Farr, still adamant, was jailed on Thursday; about three hours later, a state appeals court freed him temporarily while it considered his lawyer’s petition for a permanent stay of sentence. Another lengthy round of appeals could follow.

Farr’s brief incarceration was yet another example of the press’s recent difficulties with law-enforcement and judicial authorities over confidentiality of sources and unpublished material. Many newsmen think that it indicates a stiffening stance by officials. But unlike other cases, in which reporters have maintained silence in the face of grand jury investigations, the Farr incident involved a direct challenge to a judge’s attempt to protect defendants’ rights in a capital case.

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