On July 28, 2021, Justin Wingerter logged on to the federal court’s website to review the file on a case the journalist says has been obsessed for years – a false conviction that became the subject of a book he few Published months earlier: “Four Shots at Oskie: Murder and Innocence in Central America.”
Although he has just published a book about it, Wingerter, then a reporter for the Denver Post, says he was happy to keep an eye on the legal developments in the case. What he did not expect that day, however, was a government file stating that “I was about to be summoned.”
According to the document filed July 22nd by the Kansas Attorney General, the government planned to require all records, records, and research from Wingerter – “essentially everything I have on the book,” he said, as well as materials that which he used for reporting a series of investigations from 2016 on the case for the Topeka Capital Journal.
The file surprised Wingerter, who understood the importance of the government. The journalist’s book relied heavily on confidential sources and police records to record the troubling story of how prosecutors in Oskaloosa, Kansas, wrongly convicted Floyd Bledsoe of the 1999 murder of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann – even after Bledsoe’s brother confessed had to murder.
A subpoena “would have helped them find out who spoke to me for the book, and that is very disturbing,” said Wingerter. “People agreed to speak to me, in full confidence that I would always keep their name out of the conversation and that they would have no effect if they spoke to me. I made this promise to them, and that would have violated that promise. “
Wingerter knew he needed legal assistance to fend off the pending subpoena, which the government had not yet served on him. The same day he noticed the government’s legal filing, he contacted two private law firms as well as the Freedom of the Press Reporters’ Committee’s free legal hotline.
The two law firms never responded, says Wingerter. But Sarah Matthews, a senior lawyer on the Reporters Committee, called back within hours. “Remarkably fast,” he said.
Wingerter says he explained the situation to Matthews and she immediately developed a strategy to respond to the subpoena.
“She was great. She was more or less telling me, ‘This is going to happen in the next few days and this is how we are going to do it,’ “Wingerter said, adding that he was quick to file papers to accept Matthews as his lawyer. “We were fully prepared and I had every confidence that she would take this matter up in court.”
But instead he said, “Maybe we’ll hit it in the media.”
While Wingerter and Matthews were strategizing, local Kansas news outlets learned of the government’s plans to request the journalist’s records. They interviewed both Wingerter and Matthews, who raised serious concerns about the pending subpoena and pledged to take action. Shortly after these stories were made public, the Kansas Attorney General’s office Derek Schmidt withdrew the subpoena notice.
In a statement, John P. Milburn, a spokesman for the bureau, said the complaint was “filed without the knowledge or consent of Attorney General Schmidt. After attorney general Schmidt heard about it this morning, he expressed his disapproval and ordered that the decision be withdrawn and the summons not issued. “
The news was a great relief – and surprise – for Wingerter, who was preparing for a major legal battle. “Nipping it in the bud this early is best for everyone,” he said. “But it shouldn’t even have reached that point.”
While he didn’t have to challenge the subpoena in court, Wingerter says that the legal advice he received from Matthews was “the world to me,” and he encourages other journalists to use the free legal hotline to get help .
“The reaction time, the knowledge, the advice, the willingness to take on this is unbeatable, and the pro bono cannot be beat,” said Wingerter. “When you’re a reporter for a local news agency, you don’t have much money. So this option is a game changer and you feel like you can take on great forces like governments and win. That gives you freedom to pursue [stories], it gives you the freedom to stand up and not be afraid, and that is an enormous resource. “
For more information on when journalists and media attorneys should use the legal hotline – and what to expect – see this Reporters Committee blog post.
This work was made possible by the Facebook Journalism Project and other donors.