The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 43 other media organizations have asked to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s motion to stop authorities from accessing slain reporter Jeff German’s cellphone and computers.
Katie Townsend, deputy executive director and legal director for the committee, issued the following statement on Tuesday:
“Nevada’s strong shield law is intended to protect journalists and news organizations from being forced to disclose exactly the kind of work product and reporter-source communications likely to be found on Jeff German’s electronic devices. Allowing the Las Vegas district attorney, public defender and other government investigators to review this privileged information would profoundly chill the type of vitally important newsgathering and investigative journalism German devoted his life and career to.”
German, 69, was found dead of stab wounds earlier this month outside his Las Vegas home. Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles, who was the subject of German’s reporting, is accused of killing the veteran investigative journalist.
On Monday, the Review-Journal asked a judge to prevent the Clark County public defender’s office and district attorney’s office from searching German’s personal electronic devices, which the newspaper’s editors believe he used for work. The Review-Journal is instead asking a judge to allow a news organization to lead a cooperative review of the devices that will protect the identities of German’s confidential services.
Prosecutors and police filed documents on Tuesday in opposition to the newspaper’s motion.
Other media organizations asking to file the friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Review-Journal include The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Gannett Co., the Nevada Broadcasters Association and the Nevada Press Association.
The Review-Journal has argued that German’s devices never should have been seized by the Metropolitan Police Department, and the newspaper is seeking a protective order from a judge that would establish a protocol and appoint a special master from outside Las Vegas to determine if any information on German’s devices should be disclosed.
Earlier this month, Metro police told the newspaper in writing that “no search has commenced” and “there is no intent to conduct any search until a protocol can be approved by the judge.” Prosecutors also have agreed not to seek to review any newsgathering materials without a judge’s permission.
Prosecutors filed a response to the Review-Journal’s motion on Tuesday in which they argued that the Justice Court does not have authority to hear the motion, because it “has no authority to issue orders regarding criminal discovery.”
The Las Vegas Justice Court oversees preliminary hearings in murder cases, during which a judge determines if there is enough evidence for a defendant to stand trial, but the court cannot order criminal discovery prior to a preliminary hearing, prosecutors wrote.
Metro also filed a response to the Review-Journal’s motion and argued that “a Defendant’s constitutional rights take precedence over any reporter’s rights.”
The department also argued that Nevada’s shield law would apply to German, not his employer, and that the information on German’s devices is “uniquely material to the case.”
“The electronic devices will have information about what Mr. German was doing in the days and weeks before his murder and who was communicating with him,” the document states. “As the LVRJ has reported, Mr. German’s newsgathering may have caused his murder. The newsgathering is not merely incidental (to) the investigation.”
The Review-Journal’s lawyers have argued that although prosecutors have suggested German’s devices could contain threats Telles made to German, they have “provided no factual basis for this speculation.”
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has previously told reporters that the evidence against Telles is “compelling.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote that allowing officials to review German’s documents could place sources “at acute risk of retaliatory harm, both personal and professional.”
“The tragic circumstances of this matter make it clear that such harm is more than a remote possibility,” the committee wrote. “Indeed, failing to protect the privileged information on the Seized Devices would turn Mr. German’s horrific killing into a perverse windfall for anyone in the offices of the district attorney or public defender wishing to identify and root out press-friendly employees.”