Column: The law and the slip

(Ed. note: This column was published in The Enquirer-Journal newspaper [Monroe, N.C.] in 2009.)

This is the story of how I got subpoenaed and ended up buying leopard-print underwear.

In 1998, I was a rookie reporter on the cops and courthouse beat. If you want to get subpoenaed, this is a good way to start; if you’re any good at your job, you spend a lot of time talking to investigators and defendants and witnesses.

You hear interesting things and you write about them.

One day, I was hanging around the courthouse, drinking the district attorney’s coffee, chatting up the staff, reading case files and working the beat, when a lawyer I barely knew said he had some papers for me at his office.

I toddled down the stairs behind him and across the street, and that’s when he slapped the subpoena in my palm and smiled the smile of a man who has just saved himself a $35 service fee.

“Next time someone tells you they have a subpoena, you should walk the other direction,” he said.

I had been covering the courthouse for months and still I froze when the wheels of justice turned in my direction.

Back at the office, my editor, Wister Jackson, had a belly laugh at my expense. Between guffaws, he wheezed out words like “lamblike” and “turnip truck.”

“And quit wringing your hands,” he said. “You’re not going to die.”

“But he wants my notes,” I said. “I don’t keep my notes.”

“You’re not going to court,” Wister said. “We’ll call Amanda.”

He picked up the phone and, from memory, dialed the number for the North Carolina Press Association’s legal hotline. Amanda Martin, who serves as legal counsel for freaked-out journalists all over the state, assured us that she would do her best to quash the subpoena. I’m sure she didn’t say “piffle,” but it was strongly implied in her tone.

“That’s it?” I asked Wister when we hung up. “It’s done?”

“It will be,” he said. “But you might want to put bail money in your socks tomorrow, just in case. And you should wear clean underwear, in case they haul you off to jail.”

I did the rounds of the cop shops the next morning, then I went to the mall at lunch and bought a new, leopard print slip to wear under my dress. If I was going to be strip-searched at the county jail, I was going to give the turnkeys a funny story to tell all of the cops who were, inevitably, going to hear about the whole mess.

Of course, Amanda got the subpoena quashed without breaking a sweat, and Wister laughed heartily at the story of my new slip.

In fact, he offered to pay for it, but I was raised to pay for my own underwear, if not my own legal defense.

The slip and the subpoena were freshly on my mind in the last two weeks, not least because events at the courthouse had me back on the phone with Amanda.

A young man named Jamez Hunter is on trial, charged with first-degree murder. Investigators say that Hunter brutally killed his grandmother in 2007 while he was high on crack and ecstasy.

Last year, our newspaper received and printed a letter from Hunter. He wrote, “I have lost the person I loved most at the hands of myself, and I felt for a while after the incident that I don’t deserve to live,”

This is, obviously, a piece of evidence that a prosecutor would like to have. Investigators came to the office a few days later and our managing editor, Stan Hojnacki, turned over the letter.

When Hunter’s case went to trial, District Attorney John Snyder told Stan that his office would be issuing a subpoena in case Stan’s testimony was needed to establish the chain of evidence from the jailhouse to the editorial page to the State Bureau of Investigation.

This caused no small furor in the newsroom as we debated whether our newsroom’s uniform response ought to be hostility to subpoenas.

Should we uniformly seek to have them quashed?

On one hand, journalists are members of the community and our goal, generally speaking, is to advance both knowledge and the public good.

More pragmatically, lawyers aren’t cheap, and there are occasional cases — like this one — when attorneys are only seeking to confirm a fact that we have already asserted (in this case, that we received a letter from the Union County Jail that was signed with the name “Jamez Hunter.”)

By that logic, there’s no reason to fight a subpoena.

On the other hand, we like to actively discourage lawyers from treating reporters’ work as some sort of unpaid investigative service. The work we do, we do for our readers and for the public interest.

And, strange as it may sound, we also pursue a degree of discretion. We try to limit anonymous sources to extreme circumstances, and those arrangements are only possible when reporters have a reputation for standing up to authority figures when they demand information.

Cheerfully taking the stand in some cases undermines those goals, but does it require a policy of actively resisting calls to testify?

In the end, it all worked out this week. The mail log at the jail was produced and Stan was not subpoenaed, after all, although we had a tense afternoon on Tuesday.

I didn’t ask about his underwear.

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