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Summer Mystery:
Why Jail Vanessa Leggett?

Vanessa Leggett, a would-be true crime writer in Houston, Texas, is fast becoming the latest martyr of the Fourth Estate in the eternal, albeit sporadic, conflict between reporters who refuse to divulge their sources or information and prosecutors who believe that to jail them is divine.

Welcome to Justice Confusing, in which a strange unsolved case has become a twisted one. We tell the story the best we can at this point, with more questions than answers.

On April 16, 1997, Doris Angleton was murdered at home in a wealthy section of Houston, Texas, a venue of notoriety already established by 1971’s famous "Blood and Money" case. She had been shot 13 times, seven in the head. Her husband, Robert Angleton, described by local media as a millionaire "bookie to the rich and famous," and his brother, Roger, a somewhat offbeat and unstable character, were subsequently charged with capital murder.

The prosecution theory was that Robert, who had been at a softball game with his twin teenage daughters when his wife was so brutally murdered, had commissioned Roger to be the trigger man. The prosecutors had some evidence, including a typewritten manual for the crime, Robert’s fingerprints on money wrappers, approximately $64,000 in cash and tapes of Roger and another man plotting a murder — seized from Roger when he was arrested.

It is pertinent to note here that Robert, as an adjunct to his underworld activities, was an informant to both the Houston police and the FBI.

Enter, then, Vanessa Leggett. In researching the case for a book she hoped to write, Leggett interviewed Roger Angleton in jail, on tape. Shortly thereafter, Roger committed suicide in jail, confessing in notes to the murder and indicating that he had framed his brother in a bizarre extortion effort (and not the first one either, Robert told the police). Whatever Roger Angleton told Vanessa Leggett has never been made public, but her notes and tapes were subpoenaed and turned over in 1998 to local prosecutors preparing to try Robert.

In August 1998, Robert Angleton was acquitted, with jurors saying they could not be sure the other voice on Roger’s murder-planning tape was Robert’s. Neither Roger’s suicide notes exonerating his brother nor Leggett’s tapes, which are rumored to implicate Robert, were introduced at trial. After the trial, prosecutors indicated that Leggett had been prepared to testify.

Frustrated local prosecutors referred the case to federal prosecutors to pursue gambling, tax evasion and money laundering charges. They also gave the Feds copies of Vanessa Leggett’s notes and tapes.

A federal grand jury was empaneled, and Vanessa Leggett testified before it in December 2000, according to her attorney, Mike DeGeurin. Then, in July of this year, the Feds subpoenaed all of Leggett’s research on the case. After several years of seemingly cooperating with the authorities, Leggett refused to comply. Following a closed hearing, the record of which is sealed, Leggett was jailed on July 19 by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon on contempt of court charges, bail denied. Unless freed on appeal, Leggett could remain there for 18 months, the duration of the grand jury.

Leggett is the first "reporter" to be jailed by a federal judge for refusing to divulge information since 1991. Justice Department rules adopted during Watergate require that the U.S. Attorney General approve all subpoenas to and arrests of reporters. In this case, however, the Justice Department contends that Leggett is not a legitimate reporter because she is unpublished and unaffiliated with any news organization.

If Leggett has authored anything other than several university publications, there are no listings in the most extensive databases available. Not that she hasn’t been trying. The Houston Press has somewhat disparagingly referred to her as "the most prolific Houston true crime writer never published," and has reported her attempts to sell the Angleton story to that paper and others. This is not her first brush with a murder case, the courts or a book project. In 1997, she testified in a case involving a convicted murderer, about which she was also writing a book, but her testimony was perfunctory and noncontroversial.

Most intriguing, however, are her other credentials. She has been a paralegal with several major law firms and a licensed private investigator. Since 1995, she has been an adjunct lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown, teaching in the English department’s professional writing program. In addition, while she may not have published as a writer, she is one of four named editors of The Varieties of Homicide and Its Research: Proceedings of the 1999 Meeting of the Homicide Research Working Group. That academic collection was issued by none other than the FBI Academy. She has also lectured as an expert on domestic violence.

On August 2, 2001, Leggett’s attorney, Mike DeGeurin, appeared on the Today show and was interviewed by Katie Couric. He dropped something of a bombshell, saying, "They came to her first and asked her to be a secret informant for the FBI. And when she refused, because she couldn’t be an independent journalist and a secret informant for the FBI, they subpoenaed her to bring all of her archives, all of the tapes, and — originals and copies, and turn them over to the grand jury."

The federal authorities clearly want everything Leggett’s got or they want to harass her, or both. But why? Having her thrown in jail was obviously going to exponentially expand visibility of the case, subjecting all concerned, including the Justice Department, to greater scrutiny and criticism, possibly winding up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Feds already have her notes and tapes of the Roger Angleton jailhouse interview. Those relate to the murder, which theoretically the Feds should not reprosecute, absent unusual circumstances. In addition, it is an open question whether anything Leggett has would be admissible in court, even if useful to the investigation.

Given Robert’s background as a bookie with prominent clients, who and how many show up in Leggett’s research? Did they talk to her as confidential sources? Given Robert’s background as an informant to the local cops and the FBI, does Leggett have information about other cases that could cause embarrassment to the authorities or interfere with ongoing investigations? Was Leggett simply the recipient of an overbroad subpoena, or does the government really want both her original and all copies, and, if so, why? Obtaining information for an investigation is one thing; depriving Leggett of access to her own work is another. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the government has been known to "lose" evidence.

While journalist groups and editorial writers have, correctly, rushed to Leggett’s defense, whether she is or is not a legitimate reporter could be a difference without distinction, from a legal perspective. The aforementioned Justice Department rules provide some deference to journalists with regard to source and information disclosure, but it is only deference, for all practical purposes providing only bragging rights that the Attorney General personally threw a reporter in jail.

The law on testimonial privilege for journalists is exceptionally murky, literally all over the map, because a great deal depends on what court jurisdiction a journalist is subject to. There is no federal shield law for journalists, although 31 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted them. Texas has none.

Remarkably, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled directly on the issue only once, in Branzburg vs. Hayes, in 1972. That decision provides little clarity because of an odd court split. Four justices (White, Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist) held that there is no privilege for journalists. Justice Powell concurred, but suggested that a qualified privilege should apply in some circumstances, which was the position of the four justices in dissent (Stewart, Douglas, Brennan, Marshall).

The qualified privilege, enunciated by Justice Stewart in his influential dissent, imposes a three-part test before journalists may be compelled to reveal confidential information to a grand jury. The information must be clearly relevant, cannot be obtained by alternative means "less destructive of First Amendment rights" and be of "compelling and overriding interest."

Regardless of their differences, all nine justices believed that journalists could ultimately be compelled to testify. That is as it should be, we believe, provided that the government reaches a high burden for necessity of the testimony. While journalists must never, ever, be agents of the government, neither may they shirk their responsibilities as citizens when information they have is essential to justice.

Leggett’s immediate fate hinges on the current attitude of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Its last ruling, in a 1998 case, viewed to be a severe blow to journalistic privilege, does not bode well for her. By the same token, since Leggett’s contempt hearing was closed, with a sealed record, no one can, at this point, determine if the government met any burden at all with regard to the necessity of her testimony. There is, however, an ambient pungency to this case.

We find it ironic that the federal authorities appear to be conveying legitimacy to Leggett’s research, but not to her standing as a reporter. On that standing, we are dogmatic. The First Amendment does not make qualitative judgments, and neither may the Justice Department. Rookie freelance journalists may not be denied the status, whatever its legal worth, afforded to their grizzled brethren. It is still sometimes the "children" who proclaim that the emperor is without clothes, and Justice White worried eloquently in the Branzburg decision regarding judicial attempts to define a category.

The ultimate irony of this case is that the jailing of Vanessa Leggett may well provide her with the publishing opportunity that she has till now been denied, amplified by the megaphone of celebrity. We eagerly await the tale that only she can tell, very possibly after adding her name to an important Supreme Court case.


August 16, 2001
Star Chamber

Vanessa Leggett’s contempt-of-court-hearing before U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon was closed to the public, record sealed.

So, too, will be Leggett’s appeal, on the docket for August 15 before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition, that court has nixed requests by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists to argue before the court on Leggett’s behalf.

Yes, the court may impose those strictures. Whether it should is another matter. As citizens, we look to our courts not only for justice but also for intelligence. Neither is evident in these decisions.

The Justice Department and Judge Harmon have already insured that this case is going to be covered, covered again and then covered some more. Jailing reporters will do that. Now, a sizable number who buy their ink by the barrel and broadcast by satellite are going to go at this with a vengeance. Closing hearings and denying journalist groups the right to make arguments on behalf of their own will do that.

It may well be that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has thus far had no personal involvement in this case. He should step in now, before disaster becomes catastrophe.


August 17, 2001
The Case Against Vanessa Leggett
It May Be Legal, But It Ain’t Right

On August 15, Vanessa Leggett got her day in court before a three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She was not there; she’s still in jail.

The courtroom was open to the public - not closed as the judges had originally intended - as a result of an emergency motion filed by a group of major news organizations.

According to a variety of news reports, the court did not appear sympathetic to granting Leggett any kind of testimonial privilege. Be that as it may, federal prosecutors were forced to lay heavy stink on what they’re about by acknowledging that they do not know if Leggett’s information is relevant or not and dodging questions about what is now clearly an excessively broad subpoena, before relenting to at least allow Leggett to keep copies of her work.

Most telling, the prosecutors resorted to the old "grand jury made us do it and we can’t talk about it because grand juries are secret" line, which should have been gonged out of the courtroom, but wasn’t. For anyone under the age of 12 who doesn’t already know this, grand juries are almost always the docile pawns of prosecutors, as in the famous line regarding the indictability of a ham sandwich. It’s a rare grand juror, indeed, who even asks to go to the bathroom outside of scheduled breaks.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle outside the courtroom, Leggett’s husband said he had not even been allowed to visit his wife for the first 10 days she was jailed, the excuse being paperwork and the need to screen visitors. Want to make the case that this isn’t harassment in light of that?

We can’t read Chinese, but if the state-run media in the People’s Republic isn’t on this case like white on that fine sticky rice, we’d be surprised. What’s our government going to say the next time we legitimately criticize the Chinese for human rights violations, and this gets thrown in our face? We didn’t make Vanessa Leggett’s family pay for an execution bullet? We didn’t sell her organs to the highest bidder?

Justice is a matter of perspective, and someone at the Justice Department is losing it over this case.


August 20, 2001
Pursuit of Justice or Wingtipped Thugs?

On August 17, only two days after hearing arguments in the case, a three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the requirement of grand jury testimony supersedes any First Amendment privilege for journalists “absent evidence of governmental harassment or oppression.”

Vanessa Leggett will thus remain in jail until she complies with the government’s subpoena or the grand jury expires. There is, of course, the faint possibility that grown-ups in the Justice Department - smelling the impending public relations debacle that is already way down the slope - reign in the prosecutors.

There is only one positive aspect to the ruling: it sets the stage for a legitimate and important appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is past time for a contemporary ruling to bring clarity to a host of conflicting lower court rulings resulting from the judicial confusion - or willfulness - engendered by the split court ruling in Branzburg v. Hayes.

The facts of this specific case and freedom of the press to adequately inform the public without undue government interference argue strongly for qualified privilege for journalists, in line with the three-part test delineated by Justice Stewart in his Branzburg dissent.

Interviewed by Greta van Susteren on CNN, Leggett outlined details of her case that should disturb us all, including the attempt by the government to turn her into a paid informant (and forego publishing her book). She believes she has no information that the government does not have or could not get, and thus her incarceration is nothing more than harassment. She says she will do her time rather than reveal information she received in confidence.

There are four fundamental questions that must be answered about this case - in the courts or in the press:

  1. Is Vanessa Leggett a “journalist” in the eyes of the First Amendment?

  2. Does she have information that can be obtained through no other means that is essential to justice in a criminal case?

  3. Has the government conducted itself properly or is it time for those who value liberty and law on the same plane to begin thinking “wingtipped thugs?”

  4. Who killed Doris Angleton?


August 30, 2001
Only a Book, Justice Jolly?

When the three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the appeal of Vanessa Leggett, Judge Grady Jolly remarked, "Here we have just someone who is writing a book." (Emphasis added)

With considerable understatement, the Houston Chronicle commented that the remark is "not a sign of optimism on the First Amendment." It is lamentably a lot worse than that. It is actually evidence sufficient to the understanding that Judge Jolly views book writers as lesser creatures under phylum "journalist."

Neither lesser nor greater, Judge, just different, but still, depending on the subject area and approach, very much a part of journalism. The part that can stretch out, in detail, in depth, in context and elucidate the whole of a story, or the closest that mere mortals can get to it.

One of the tantalizing aspects of the Leggett case is that the woman the Justice Department would denigrate as not a journalist and Judge Jolly would dismiss as just someone who is writing a book is becoming the most important symbol of a free press against an overreaching government in decades. She did not seek that role, but she is fulfilling it with honor and dignity and courage. Not to mention that while the stones were being thrown at her, she became a published writer, with a "My Turn" column in Newsweek. Her story from jail is simply told, without artifice, conceit or anger.

She’s a journalist, Judge Jolly. She’s a journalist, General Ashcroft. You may keep her in jail, but before this is over, her pen will become mightier than your power. That is because there are elements of this case that square not with the pursuit of justice. The stench is of your houses, not hers.

To read Vanessa Leggett’s "My Turn: My Principles Have Landed Me in Jail" click on:


September 4, 2001
Assault on the Press:
A Justice Department Pattern Unfolds

For those, like us, who have wanted to believe that the Justice Department assault on Vanessa Leggett is an isolated incident of a petulant FBI and overzealous federal prosecutors, without the knowledge or involvement of grown-ups at Justice, we must rethink our position.

Now comes news of the subpoena of home telephone records of John Solomon, an Associated Press reporter. Making bad worse, Solomon learned only last week that the records had been turned over to the government by MCI Worldcom in May.

Solomon has been covering the federal investigation of U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli. It is believed that the government is attempting to identify sources of a Solomon story that appeared on May 4. That story revealed that a Torricelli telephone conversation had been picked up by a government wiretap deployed in an organized crime investigation.

At this point, the story approaches gangs who can’t shoot straight territory regarding who authorized the subpoena of Solomon’s phone records.

It was first reported that the subpoena had been authorized by Deputy Attorney General Lawrence Thompson, with indications from an unnamed administration source that Thompson, newly appointed, did not understand the sensitivity of his decision. Follow-up reports indicate that the dastardly decision is to be hung on none other than Robert Mueller, the new FBI Director, who was Acting Deputy Attorney General at the time of the subpoena.

Whoever signed off on the subpoena, the Attorney General of the United States is John Ashcroft, and under his ultimate authority the decisions about both Leggett and Solomon have been made. Right now, he’s in a bad place, from a public relations perspective. If he does not renounce or explain or temper the actions against Leggett and Solomon, he risks an all-out war with the press — and we can remember no one who has ever won that war when it is about the bedrock principles of the First Amendment.

The press should be frequently flogged — with words — for specific and numerous faults. But the freedom of the press should not be assaulted by the government through the use of police powers.

The First Amendment does not know and cannot recognize ideology. It is deaf, dumb and blind to all but one principle — the freedom to speak and publish and worship freely. That principle is not without the rational limitations imposed by other constitutional protections, but any erosion of the First Amendment is cause for alarm.


September 4, 2001
Correction and Addendum

Last week’s column on the subpoena of AP reporter John Solomon’s home telephone records did not acknowledge that Attorney General John Ashcroft has recused himself from decisions regarding the government’s investigation of U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli.

We do so now. Attorney General John Ashcroft has recused himself from decisions regarding the government’s investigation of U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli. That changes nothing about the responsibility for the untoward invasion of a reporter’s records, without his knowledge, before he had any opportunity to register a legal objection.

Although rooted in the Torricelli investigation, the search for government employees who have leaked information about it in violation of rules and/or laws is arguably another case entirely. Even if it is not, the Attorney General is ultimately responsible for the procedures that govern Justice Department activity. He has either sent no signal about freedom of the press or he has sent the wrong one.

This writer, in another lifetime and along with others, pursued stories that were as popular with a prior administration as mosquitoes in the bedroom. Some of the efforts at retaliation against us were creative and insidious, making the mere seizure of phone records seem like a day in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. We communicated by pay phone, met with sources in bars where even the best undercover agents would have looked out of place and, when our levels of paranoia were not sufficient, medicated ourselves appropriately.

We were not alone, and if we had been as good at money management as we thought we were at uncovering bad stuff, we might have made it long enough to hit the Enemies List. But we were early and gone in the night. That was a bad time in America; the country does not need another like it.

We had high hopes for a straight arrow Justice Department for a change, and we haven’t given up on this one yet, but it’s just the first inning and there are already two throws at journalists that seem like beanballs.


October 5 , 2001
anessa Leggett Redux

We do not know what is meant by pundits who proclaim the "death of irony," post 9-ll. To us, the height of irony is an American journalist in an American jail, put there in July by a Justice Department which now seeks expanded powers to battle terrorism, while pledging not to trample civil liberties.

Vanessa Leggett can give no witness to those good intentions. Every day she stays in jail bears silent testimony that skepticism, like liberty, should be strengthened, not surrendered. Vanessa Leggett is in jail because she will not surrender to the government information provided to her in confidence about a notorious Houston, Texas, murder case. She obtained the information while researching a book.

We have written about the case to the extent that we are able (see: "Summer Mystery:Why Jail Vanessa Leggett?")

The facts, while publicly scarce, are disturbing. Too many of them scream railroad job; too few point to an objective pursuit of justice.

The Center for Individual Freedom has contributed to Vanessa Leggett’s defense fund. We did so because we believe she’s an honest and honorable journalist, punitively jailed under law that is murky, poorly understood and inconsistently applied.

We believe that the U.S Supreme Court should revisit the issue of journalistic privilege and provide the clarity that is currently absent. We believed that before the horrific events of 9-11, and we believe it even more strongly now. This nation at war has historically produced significant tension between the acute needs of government for secrecy and the right of a free press to inform the public. That will only intensify in an environment where confidential sources are often the only sources. Whatever the legal strictures are to be, the Supreme Court needs to define them with an exceptionally bright line.

The Vanessa Leggett case provides the best opportunity for timely Supreme Court review. Following the rejection of Leggett’s appeal by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, has petitioned for a rehearing by the full court, fulfilling all procedural requirements, but likely to be denied.

To read the brief as filed, click here. It contains a revelation that adds substantively to the disturbing details of the case. The record of Vanessa Leggett’s contempt of court hearing before federal district Judge Melinda Harmon was closed, the record sealed. However, in DeGeurin’s brief, the judge is quoted as saying, "[b]eing unfamiliar with this process, having never done this before and needing to rely upon the experience of all the attorneys here…"

Thus acknowledging her ignorance, the judge then proceeded, refusing repeated requests by DeGeurin for a delay that would have allowed all participants, including the judge, to prepare. As citizens, we are frequently told that ignorance of the law, as complicated as it has become, is no excuse for violating it. That is equally true for judges in applying the law.

Vanessa Leggett and the forces that have imprisoned her are locked in a battle of wills; hers appears guided by conscience and principle. No justice is served by her continued incarceration. Neither is the necessary belief that the Justice Department will do the right thing as tensions of crisis mount.

John Ashcroft came to office as Attorney General with a reputation for integrity and honor, despite controversies over his positions on a variety of issues. In refusing to mount legal challenges to which he was entitled over an election for the U.S. Senate that raised significant questions, he stood for principle. He should do that again, by affecting the release of Vanessa Leggett, pending the exhaustion of her appeals. That is not too much to ask; it is not unreasonable to expect.


November 6 , 2001
Motion Filed Requesting Leggett’s
Release on Bond

On November 5, 2001, attorneys for Vanessa Leggett filed a motion before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals requesting Leggett’s release on bond.

Vanessa Leggett is not a flight risk. She is not a danger to the community. She is not a criminal. She is a prisoner of conscience, and if the court has one, it will release her.

To read the motion as filed, click here. It speaks for itself.


November 15, 2001
ppeals Court Denies Leggett Rehearing, Refuses Bond

The Fifth Circuit U.S Court of Appeals has denied Vaoessa Leggett a rehearing by the full court and rejected a request to release her on bond.

The Houston, Texas writer and teacher has been jailed since July 20 for refusing to turn over to federal prosecutors all of her research on a notorious Houston murder case.


January 4, 2002
Free Vindicate Vanessa Leggett!
(The Supreme Court Gets Its Chance)

Earlier this week, attorneys for Vanessa Leggett, the Houston writer and teacher jailed for refusing to surrender confidential research material to the government, appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court (the complete petition is posted below).

As this is being written, early on Friday, January 4, Leggett is expected to be released by order of a federal district judge. The grand jury which (technically) sought her incarceration expires today–presumably without bringing any indictments. It is by no means certain that Leggett’s trials are over, since federal prosecutors have indicated they will continue their quest for her material.

Leggett, jailed on July 20, 2001, has now done more time than any other journalist as a matter of conscience and more than a lot of criminals with no conscience. Why? Read the Center’s extensive coverage of the case here and decide for yourself. One hint: The objective pursuit of justice is not a correct answer.

A friend of ours, a brilliant professor of constitutional law, recently said he could not understand the Center’s support for Leggett on constitutional grounds, unless there are supporting facts. Well, there are, and they smell worse than a busload of skunks in the Texas sun.

We also believe Leggett is a journalist. We believe that journalists are entitled to a limited, qualified privilege under the First Amendment. We believe that the (essentially) 4-4-1 decision by the Supreme Court in l972 in Branzburg v. Hayes has been too disparately interpreted by lower courts, making the issue a form of judicial roulette, depending on jurisdiction. Whatever the law is to be, it should be clear to journalists and the government. Only the Supreme Court can render that clarity, and there is no better time than now, no better case than Leggett’s. We hope the court accepts it.

To read the brief, please click below:
Table of Contents and Table of Authorities
Pages 1-14 of the Petition
Pages 15-30 of the Petition


January 25, 2002
Center Files Brief on Behalf of Vanessa Leggett

The Center for Individual Freedom has filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in support of Vanessa Leggett’s petition asking the Court to hear her case.

Vanessa Leggett is the Houston, Texas, writer and teacher jailed for 168 days for refusing to reveal confidential sources and information regarding a notorious murder case to federal prosecutors. That refusal followed an attempt by the FBI to convert Leggett, who is writing a book on the case, into a paid undercover government informant.

The Center’s brief argues the public interest necessity for qualified testimonial privilege for journalists. It also stresses the acute need for Supreme Court review to establish clear guidance to lower federal courts, which are widely split on the issue as a result of the Supreme Court’s l972 plurality decision in Branzburg v. Hayes.

As written in the Center’s brief, "Our ability to govern ourselves is threatened every time a party, prosecutor, or grand jury merely fishing for information compels a news gatherer to reveal a confidential source or other unpublished information. A clearly articulated, universally applied, qualified news gatherer’s privilege is the strongest shield against this threat. The Court should take the opportunity presented by this case to definitively recognize such a privilege and thus ensure the public’s right to know."

To read the Center’s brief, click here. To read the Leggett petition, click here.

The Center has written extensively on the Leggett case (click here) and has contributed to her legal defense fund.


January 25, 2002
Blood Simple
(And the Murder Case That Isn’t)

Just when anyone paying any attention at all thought the Robert Angleton/Vanessa Leggett case was curious enough, it got more so.

For purposes of simplification, let’s go back a bit. Last year, federal prosecutors pursuing Robert Angleton, the millionaire Houston bookie already acquitted in a state court of murdering his wife, had Vanessa Leggett thrown in the pokey because she wouldn’t rat out confidential sources for the book she is writing on the murder.

The prosecutors, hiding behind a standard-issue grand jury burka, were aided and abetted by a federal district judge, who, in a secret hearing, acknowledged her ignorance of the law she was asked to interpret. Instead of reviewing the law before acting, the judge threw herself on the mercy of the lawyers arguing before her to render her judgment that Leggett was in contempt of court for insisting that the First Amendment actually means something. For that, Leggett gained entry into the Guinness Book of Naughty Journalists Records, doing more time than any other journalist in history for refusing to burn confidential sources.

After l68 days of taxpayer-funded, federal detention center hospitality, Leggett was freed at the expiration of the grand jury term. Some of the more cynical among us wondered if the release would only be temporary, a prosecution ploy to moot out the recently filed request for U.S. Supreme Court review of Leggett’s case. Such things happen in America.

If the Supreme Court does accept the case, there is always the faint possibility that one or two journalists will actually see this story as big enough to investigate the factual circumstances of the case instead of asking Leggett inane questions about how it felt to be in jail. Given a big old bag full of unanswered questions, there’s at least a reasonable surmise that a couple of tough stories would prove significantly embarrassing to some people.

At any rate, and you must follow closely now, the original grand jury expired on January 4–without returning any indictment. Then, on January 25, FBI agents arrested Robert Angleton at his home. The charges are conspiracy, murder for hire and firearms violations. The indictment was returned by a new grand jury.

So, what obtains here?

A grand jury met for a full eighteen-month term (with extensions) without returning an indictment. What was that grand jury doing all that time? Waiting for Leggett to fold and hand over the research that prosecutors maintained was so critical to their investigation, while otherwise acknowledging that they didn’t have a clue what her research shows? Or maybe just running the jail clock on Leggett, whose journalistic credentials they had disparaged at the same time they were acting like her investigative abilities had bested those of the federal government?

If the information Leggett refused to provide was critical to returning an indictment, then how is it that the new grand jury, which could not possibly have sat for more than l3 days (if it was seated after the old grand jury expired) was able to whip out a three-count indictment so quickly? On what new evidence that was unavailable to the just-expired old grand jury?

There are some indications from FBI testimony at Angleton’s bail hearing. Agent Cynthia Rosenthal, who is married to the former state prosecutor who lost the original case against Angleton (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and who also played a lead role in the attempt to recruit Leggett as a paid undercover informant, told the judge that the FBI lab had "enhanced" a tape recording of two men conspiring to murder Robert Angleton’s wife. BUT, the identification of the voice prosecutors have alleged to be Robert’s on that tape has already been challenged by a voiceprint expert (originally hired by the prosecution), as well as witnesses who are quite familiar with Robert’s voice. In fact, uncertainty over the tape was cited by several jurors as the reason for Angleton’s original acquittal.

The FBI "enhancement" of the tape is certain to face a withering attack from Angleton’s attorney, Michael Ramsey, a criminal defense gunslinger of the first order. In addition, the recent ruling by a federal judge on fingerprint evidence (click on Myth of Fingerprints) is likely to cast something of a cloud on the introduction of any "scientific" evidence in high profile criminal cases.

At the bail hearing, Agent Rosenthal also referred to a taped conversation between Robert Angleton and Vanessa Leggett during which Angleton allegedly said, "Only two people in the whole world knew about the murder, and one of them was not Roger." (Roger was Angleton’s brother who committed suicide in jail, leaving a suicide note confessing to the murder and exonerating Robert.) Whatever that comment means, and whatever its relevance as evidence, it is hardly new and represents material that Leggett voluntarily provided to prosecutors as not violating the confidentiality of sources.

This is a story with no end in sight, which isn’t all that bad for those of us who love a good whodunit and who sometimes suspect skullduggery even among those who are supposed to be the good guys. When the story does end, it’s going to be written by Vanessa Leggett, the only character in this entire tragicomedy so far whose honor and integrity have been thoroughly tested and found beyond reproach.


April 24, 2002
Vanessa Leggett Accepts First Amendment Award
Crown Publishing Buys Her Book

On April 24, 2002, Vanessa Leggett, the Texas writer jailed for refusing to reveal confidential sources or to turn over all her research to federal prosecutors investigating a notorious murder case, received the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award.

Her poignant acceptance remarks follow.

This week, Crown Publishing made a pre-emptive bid for publishing rights to Leggett's book about the case and her ordeal.

When I was in jail, I really didn't think my life could get any more surreal. I was wrong.

To have been selected as this year's PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award recipient, I am both honored and humbled. Having been confined to a place where civil rights are contemptuously regarded as "legal loopholes" or antiquated nuisances, I can't tell you how good it feels to be in the company of those who not only respect the First Amendment, but actively work to defend free expression and give it life in their art.

Before September 11, many of us considered freedom as natural and invisible a part of life as breathing. My awakening occurred a bit earlier. On July 20, when I had to lose my physical freedom to prevent the government from controlling my intellectual independence, I realized first-hand that free expression is as vital to free society as oxygen is to life. Being in this great city is a poignant reminder that the mere threat to our freedom rouses an instinctive, formidable resistance. So it was, I think, with me and other PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment award recipients-the writers, academicians, publishers, schoolteachers, editors, booksellers, and librarians often regarded as quiet, contemplative types-who, finding themselves in a position to defend the First Amendment, intuitively understood free expression is worth fighting for.

In closing, I'd like to acknowledge those who helped make this event possible. First, I want to thank Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner for establishing this award and Mr. Newman especially for sponsoring it in furtherance of his self-described "shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good." Special thanks also to PEN American Center for administering the award and allowing me this high honor. Next, I thank Lucy Dalglish, President of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, for her nomination and the judges for selecting me. I am also indebted to a host of individuals and organizations, including the Reporters Committee, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Center for Individual Freedom. And finally, as someone who's grateful to be back in the "free world," I'd like to salute each of you at PEN American Center and the several thousand other members of PEN around the globe for recognizing that a world without free expression is not a free world. Thank you.

Vanessa Leggett
April 24, 2002

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