The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed a case against an Arizona Republic editor after a 19-month legal battle in which the newspaper argued that he did not have to turn over his unpublished notes from an interview with a crime victim.
John D’Anna in December 2015 published a story about a Catholic priest who said he forgave the man who attacked him with a tire iron and then shot another priest to death. The killer’s defense attorneys in January 2016 subpoenaed D’Anna’s notes from his interviews, and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered that he turn them over.
The Republic took the decision to the Arizona Court of Appeals, arguing reporters’ confidential sources are protected by the First Amendment and Arizona’s reporter shield and subpoena laws. The appellate court agreed in a decision last August.
The defense attorneys, however, asked the Arizona Supreme Court to review the appellate decision in a special action, which is a sort of expedited appeal.
On Tuesday, the high court dismissed the case with a one-paragraph order saying the case was moot because the killer pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release.
That moot decision let stand the precedent-setting appellate court ruling. It was the first time an Arizona Court of Appeals recognized laws that journalists have taken for granted.
“The upshot of the Supreme Court ruling is that it leaves standing a watershed ruling that recognized and applied a journalist’s First Amendment right to protect against the disclosure of a journalist’s unpublished interview notes,” said David Bodney, the attorney who represented D’Anna and The Republic in the case.
Such notes are considered work product and not shared involuntarily, as they may reveal details noted off the record or details that could compromise otherwise confidential sources.
“I’m pleased that the case is over and that the Court of Appeals ruling stands,” D’Anna said. “I think it provides some critical protections for journalists that will allow us to continue to do our jobs, remain independent and keep our promises to our sources.”
In June 2014, an ex-convict named Gary Moran broke into a church near the Arizona Capitol. When confronted by one of the priests, the Rev. Joseph Terra, Moran struck Terra with an angle iron. Terra then tried to retrieve his gun, which Moran took from him. He then used the gun to kill the Rev. Kenneth Walker.
Moran was charged with first-degree murder and faced a possible death sentence.
In 2015, D’Anna published a pair of stories about Terra and how he had forgiven Moran. Moran’s defense attorneys subpoenaed D’Anna’s notes. Superior Court Judge Peter Reinstein ordered they be surrendered. D’Anna and The Republic appealed the order.
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The Court of Appeals overturned Reinstein’s ruling in August 2016, but the defense attorneys took it upstairs to the Supreme Court.
But in February, Moran pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. In April, he was sentenced to the only penalty available to the court under those circumstances: natural life in prison.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled the case moot, letting the Appeals Court decision stand.
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