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Jailed Writer Freed After Five Months

BY Admin  January 4, 2002 at 12:00 PM EDT

The 33-year-old Leggett has been in prison since July 20 of last year for refusing to hand over notes and research gathered during a four-year investigation of a sensational Houston murder.

“I’m just very grateful to be free,” Leggett told reporters. “Downtown Houston never looked so good. I feel good — I was able to maintain my journalistic integrity so far.”

She was released after 168 days when the grand jury investigating the murder ended its term.

However, federal prosecutors have said they will likely ask Leggett for her research. Another grand jury could be convened as early as next week and she could be subpoenaed to appear.

She said she will resist any new efforts to force her to turn over the research and is ready to return to jail if need be.

“If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes,” she said. “This is not so much about me. It’s about the public’s right to a free and independent press.”

Leggett had claimed reporter’s privilege, which in some cases allows journalists not to disclose information from confidential sources, during the first investigation. Leggett says she was conducting research for a book on the 1997 killing of Doris Angleton, the wife of a millionaire sports bookie.

Federal prosecutors contend Leggett is not a journalist and has no book contract and therefore is not protected by the First Amendment’s protection of the press. Leggett, who has taught English and criminal justice courses at the University of Houston, has never published a book or news articles.

A District Court judge ordered Leggett jailed, and a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling on appeal in November.

“Even assuming that Leggett, a virtually unpublished freelance writer, operating without an employer or a contract for publication, qualifies as a journalist under the law, the journalist privilege is ineffectual against a grand jury subpoena, absent evidence of governmental harassment or oppression,” the appeals court wrote at that time.

Some U.S. news organizations and First Amendment watchdog groups have supported Leggett, saying the case threatens freedom of the press.

“The last person I want to be deciding who a journalist is is somebody in the government,” Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish told the NewsHour in August. “I know that Vanessa Leggett is a journalist. She was out there working on this story. She was collecting information with the idea of disseminating it to the public. In my mind she did the requisite research needed. She had the intent to publish a book.”