Jim Dey: Attacking the shield law
Murder case turns into search for source of stories
A little more than a year ago, Joliet residents were shocked by a brutal double murder and the subsequent arrests of four suspects — two men and two women — for a senseless crime.
But what once was an effort to bring the defendants to trial has morphed into a search for the source of a series of sensational stories written by reporter Joseph Hosey.
Facing a contempt citation as well as potential fines and jail time, Hosey has appealed the Will County trial judge's order that he turn over his notes and identify his source to the 2nd District Appellate Court. Hosey's defense relies on a state law that shields reporters from being forced to identify their sources, a claim that fell on the deaf ears of Circuit Judge Gerald Kinney.
Hosey, who has continued his reporting work, declined to comment on his case.
"I'm sorry, but I have to refer everyone to my attorneys," he said last week.
What's interesting and ironic about the controversy is that it has nothing to do with establishing the guilt or innocence of the defendants, which is the duty of the legal proceedings over which Kinney will preside. But Kinney has said that does not matter, that the search for the reporter's source is an important issue by itself.
"Although the court has indicated that these inquiries may seem to be off topic when it comes to focusing (on) four defendants charged with murder, the court in no way believes this inquiry is off the topic of determining whether or not there have been violations of Illinois law or Supreme Court rules," Kinney wrote in an 11-page order stripping Hosey of his reporter's privilege.
The controversy stems from the Jan. 10, 2013, murders of Terrance Rankins and Eric Glover, both 22. Two of the defendants — Alisa Massaro and Bethany McKee, both 18 — allegedly invited the victims to Massaro's house and then stood by while two other defendants — Joshua Miner, 24, and Adam Landerman, 18 — strangled them. The motive is unclear but is believed to be related to a plan to steal money and drugs.
While those details alone are sensational, what transpired after the murder was even more strange, and Hosey found a detail-hungry audience when he published a series of stories titled "Nightmare on Hickory Street" on a local news website.
"Accused Killers Confessed to Having Sex on the Bodies, Police Reports Reveal."
"Daddies Little Girls: One Dad Threatened to Call the Cops, the Other Did."
"Accused Killer Wanted to Keep Dead Men's Teeth."
"'There's Four Mouths that Know,' Accused Killer Says, 'But We're All Involved Equally.'"
Suffice it to say, Hosey's stories were hot stuff, a triumph of reporting that was attributed to an impeccable source — investigators' reports.
There is, of course, a natural tension that exists between the courts and the news media. So it was not surprising that Chuck Bretz, McKee's defense lawyer, resented the reporting. What was surprising is that Bretz demanded an inquiry into how Hosey got the information he cited in his reporting and from whom.
Although no gag order had been imposed in the case, Judge Kinney agreed to oversee a search for the reporter's source. He subsequently ordered all the participants in the case — people in the state's attorney's office, the public defender's office, the Joliet Police Department and private attorneys — to disclose their knowledge about how the information became public. None of the roughly 500 people who responded acknowledged being Hosey's source.
Kinney then focused his inquiry on Hosey, who cited the state's shield law as grounds for not disclosing his source.
The shield is not absolute and Illinois law states that a court can divest a reporter of his shield if a "specific public interest" would be "adversely affected," an extremely vague standard subject to wide interpretation.
Hosey's lawyer, Kenneth Schmetterer, resisted disclosure on a variety of grounds, the most important of which was that finding Hosey's source is irrelevant to the court's job of presiding over a trial of the defendants. Schmetterer argued that if the court is concerned about the defendants receiving a fair trial in the aftermath of the stories, it has adequate tools at its disposal — jury instructions, excusing jurors who've formed opinions and a possible change of venue — to address the problem.
He argued that trying to identify the leaker to "plug" the leak is a legally impermissible use of judicial authority because its sole purpose is aimed at making it harder for reporters to serve the public interest.
Initial suspicion on the source of the leak focused on the Joliet police. But Judge Kinney also speculated that the police reports could have been provided elsewhere and concluded that justified his order requiring Hosey to disclose his source.
Kinney said that if the source is an attorney or a member of an attorney's staff, "Supreme Court rules relative to discovery have clearly been violated." He also expressed a "concern as to whether or not the secrecy of the grand jury was violated."
"In addition, the filing of a false affidavit could lead to charge or court-imposed sanctions," Kinney wrote.
In other words, the judge intends to get to the bottom of this matter even if he has to rely on speculation as the legal basis to evade Illinois' reporter shield law. He has stated his opinion that the law allows him that privilege. If the appeals court agrees, Illinois' shield law will be rendered effectively meaningless.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org [JUMP]or at 351-5369.