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Documentary filmmaker wins Nevada Shield Law protection ruling

CARSON CITY — A Clark County judge has denied attempts by lawyers in a high-profile criminal trial to review a journalist’s unpublished notes and video interviews with a victim who was a key witness in the case.

An attorney for documentary filmmaker Joanna Friedman hailed the Thursday decision by District Judge Richard Scotti as a victory for press freedoms and Nevada’s Shield Law.

The ruling by Scotti also marked the first time a Nevada judge has extended the press privilege beyond institutional reporters — in this case to a documentary filmmaker.

“This is the first time any court in Nevada has looked at that,” Friedman’s attorney, Daniel Hill, said Friday. Other court cases have involved reporters with established news organizations, he said.

“It is a good victory for all information gatherers in the state,” Hill said.

Friedman, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles, is relieved.

“It was pretty scary,” she said of the legal tangle that put her relationship with the victim in the Las Vegas case before the court.

Friedman has been documenting the stories of human trafficking victims and their recoveries. She has been working on her film for more than four years and hopes to have it finished by early 2017, depending on funding.

“Part of the whole point of the film is to let the survivors have a voice,” she said. “This could have been very silencing to victim witnesses.”

Scotti, in a ruling from the bench, quashed a subpoena by attorneys for Robert Sharpe III seeking hours of videotaped interviews with a woman who said Sharpe forced her into a life of prostitution, tortured her for months and threatened to kill her and her family if she ever spoke to police.

Sharpe was convicted in March on 15 felony counts that include first-degree kidnapping, sex trafficking, assault and living from the earnings of a prostitute. He faces a sentence of life without parole when sentenced in May.

But the day before Sharpe’s trial started, defense lawyers Dan Winder and Arnold Weinstock learned that Friedman, a documentary filmmaker with UpRez Media, had interviewed the woman numerous times.

They sought notes and video footage of those interviews, arguing they could potentially provide crucial evidence favorable to Sharpe.

The defense argued the victim “had previously given up to five different versions of the incidents in the case,” and that “fundamental fairness” required they be made available to protect Sharpe’s due process rights.

Hill, representing Friedman and UpRez Media, fought the subpoena, arguing Nevada’s Shield Law protects the works of journalists and information gatherers and that Friedman’s unpublished documentary constitutes reporting.

The Nevada law, viewed as one of the most liberal in the country, states that no reporter “may be required to disclose any published or unpublished information obtained or prepared … in gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public, or the source of any information procured or obtained … in any legal proceedings, trial or investigation.”

In a legal brief opposing Friedman’s motion to quash the subpoena, defense lawyers suggested the issue could be headed to the Nevada Supreme Court.

“Although Mr. Sharpe has been convicted by a jury, the subpoenaed information is vital to his appeal and/or motion for a new trial,” Weinstock wrote.

Friedman said documentary filmmakers, like other journalists, need to establish trust with their subjects, and the threat of a subpoena can have a chilling effect on those relationships.

“We have to protect those who are brave enough and open enough to speak with us, to trust us,” she said.

“I take that trust very seriously,” Friedman said.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3821. Find @SandraChereb on Twitter.

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