A Texas reporter who refused to answer a defense lawyer's questions in a murder case was jailed yesterday by the judge who presided over her marriage four weeks earlier.
Libby Averyt, 26, an award-winning courthouse reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, was held in contempt of court for refusing to discuss unpublished portions of her jailhouse interview with a defendant who admitted he had killed a local jewelry store clerk.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeal refused, without explanation, to consider an appeal filed by Jorge Rangel, the paper's attorney. Averyt was ordered to Nueces County Jail for an indefinite term by state District Judge Eric Brown, who last month officiated at her marriage to another Caller-Times reporter.
"Miss Averyt, it appears we are both actors playing our parts," Brown told the reporter at a pretrial hearing. "We are both doing our jobs." Brown ruled that a murder suspect's right to information that could aid his defense outweighed her First Amendment claims.
"I don't want to go to jail," Averyt told her paper Thursday. "But my desire to avoid jail is outweighed by my duty to stand up for what I believe in. And I believe that if every time I interview someone the entire conversation could be scrutinized by attorneys, then significantly fewer people would be willing to talk to me."
Averyt had answered questions from a county prosecutor about her two published stories. But she refused to answer 12 questions from Carl Lewis, a lawyer for murder defendant Jermarr Arnold, about material that had not been published.
"The defense attorney could get that information from other sources, one of them being his client," said Caller-Times executive editor Larry Rose. "We don't want to be used as an investigative arm of any government agency or any attorney."
In the articles published last month, Arnold said he felt no remorse about fatally shooting Christina Marie Sanchez, 21, during a 1983 robbery. He called it "a cold-blooded, premeditated decision."
Arnold, who had requested the interview, said he had a history of rapes, robberies and assaults, adding: "I really do believe I deserve to die. If I get the death penalty, I'd like to have my execution be on television. . . . I'm not a nice person. I'm a very morally sick person. . . . I don't have any regard for human life."
News media lawyers say Texas courts generally have been unsympathetic to reporters' rights. In June, reporter Brian Karem of KMOL-TV in San Antonio was jailed after refusing to name a source who helped him arrange an interview with a man who admitted involvement in the shooting of a policeman. The Supreme Court refused, 7 to 2, to free Karem.
Karem was freed two weeks later when his source released him from the promise of confidentiality.