A Southern California newspaper's Web site, which has been chronicling a sensational murder trial, has been subpoenaed by defense attorneys seeking unpublished emails by readers who expressed opinions about the case.
The case surrounds the brutal killing of a Ventura County woman, Sherri Dally, who was reportedly slain by her husband's girlfriend, Diana Haun. Last month, Haun was convicted for conspiracy, kidnapping, and for Dally's murder. The husband of the victim, Michael Dally, is slated to go on trial in November as the accused coconspirator in the crime.
This week, Dally's lawyers are seeking a change of venue for the trial. They purport that local exposure to the case was dramatically increased by the Ventura County Star's Web site. Attorneys want to see every email or hard-copy letter sent to the newspaper regarding the case in order to build an argument that their client can't get a fair trial in the county or in surrounding areas.
Defense Lawyers also want more details about an online poll the Star took in which surfers submitted their verdicts in the Haun case after closing arguments were presented in court.
The legal wrangling stirs up issues about online privacy, as well as newspapers' right to protect unpublished electronic communication. The case is also another example of how the Net's global reach and interactive nature bring up new concerns for some in the legal community.
"They're seeking the death penalty against our client. We have to make sure that he gets a fair trial and ensure that the information the paper put on the Internet hasn't poisoned the minds of our client's potential jury," said Len Newcomb, an investigator for Dally's attorney, James Farley.
"We want to find out who has been reading this information and where they are from," he added.
The Star is no different from many newspapers that use their Web sites to enhance coverage of big stories. A well-known example is the San Jose Mercury News's Net presentation of its controversial report, "Dark Alliance," which linked the Central Intelligence Agency to sales of crack cocaine in inner cities.
But the Star brings up different issues. Its trial Web site includes features such as graphics depicting the alleged chain of events during the kidnap-murder, archived articles, transcripts of testimony, audio clips, and pictures of evidence exhibits. The site also solicited feedback from visitors regarding the case.
The Star's site launched in April, and traffic doubled in August when it began carrying in-depth information about the Haun trial.
"On the day of the verdict, we got four to five times the amount of normal traffic on the site," said Stephen Dana, the Star's media manager.
As of today, 283 people have responded to the poll question, "Is Diana Haun guilty of first-degree murder?" Of those, 94 percent said "yes." The survey, which is still online, allows visitors to rule on other charges as well.
"We received email from family, friends, and witnesses in the case. These emails were good reads for potential stories, but they were not intended to be published or seen by the general public," Dana added. "One reason we don't want to release the data is that those people need to have confidence that what they are sending us will be for our use only."
The Star doesn't intend to hand over unpublished correspondence or site visitor demographics on grounds that the material is protected by California shield law. That law states that reporters for news periodicals, TV and radio stations, and wire services can't be held in contempt of court for refusing to disclose unpublished information or confidential sources.
Although legal experts say it is not likely, if indeed the Star is ordered to give up readers' emails or the identities the site's registered visitors, that would effectively give the state's online reporters and news sites less protection than their print and broadcast counterparts. Such a decision could fly in the face of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Communications Decency Act case this summer, in which the Net was given the same First Amendment status as print mediums.
"The issue of turning over email [for use in court cases] has come up with Internet service providers. But a newspaper with an online presence is still a newspaper, and the shield law will protect it," said Karl Olson, a media law attorney with Levy, Ram, & Olson.
"If this was a reporter calling a bunch of people, taking notes, and using some quotes and not others, they would be protected," he added. "The newspaper's Web site is still a way of taking notes and gathering information, and they have good grounds not to turn over the emails."