The 33-year-old Leggett has been in prison since July 20 on contempt-of-court charges for refusing to hand over notes and research gathered during a four-year investigation of a sensational Houston murder.
Leggett has claimed reporter’s privilege, which in some cases allows journalists not to disclose information from confidential sources. Leggett says she was researching for a book on the 1997 killing of Doris Angleton, the wife of a millionaire sports bookie.
Prosecutors say Leggett, who had no book contract at the time of her incarceration, does not qualify as a journalist. A District Court judge ordered Leggett jailed, and a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling on appeal.
“Even assuming that Leggett, a virtually unpublished freelance writer, operating without an employer or a contract for publication, qualifies as a journalist under the law, the journalist privilege is ineffectual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 said.
On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit declined Leggett’s request for a hearing before the full court. In a separate ruling, the court also denied a request to release Leggett on bond.
Leggett’s attorneys say the recent rulings helped steel their client’s resolve to take her case to the high court.
“When I told her about the Fifth Circuit decision, she said ‘Let’s do it,'” lawyer Mike DeGeurin told Reuters.
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 somebody in the government,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, 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.”
If she doesn’t turn over the requested documents, Leggett’s jail term could last as long as 18 months.