Las Vegas police, prosecutors and defense attorneys must wait to access a slain investigative journalist’s cellphone and electronic devices, over concerns about revealing the reporter’s confidential sources and notes, a judge said Tuesday.
Clark County District Court Judge Susan Johnson said the pause will last until all sides craft a way for a neutral party to screen the records.
The judge granted a Las Vegas Review-Journal request to block immediate review of the records, which are expected to include source names and notes by reporter Jeff German.
Police and prosecutors say they need access to German’s records for evidence that Robert “Rob” Telles, a former Democratic elected county official, fatally stabbed German on Sept. 2 in response to articles German wrote that were critical of Telles and his managerial conduct.
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The newspaper — with backing from dozens of media organizations including The Associated Press and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — maintains that confidential information, names and unpublished material are protected from disclosure under state and federal law.
Telles, 45, the Clark County public administrator, was arrested Sept. 7 and remains jailed without bail on a murder charge. Authorities say surveillance video, Telles’ DNA on German’s body and evidence found at Telles’ home connect him to the killing.
Johnson acknowledged that because it is rare for U.S. journalists to be killed allegedly because of their work, there was little legal precedent that could be followed to allow investigators to search German’s files.
German, 69, was widely respected for his tenacity and confidential contacts in 44 years of reporting on organized crime, government corruption, political scandals and mass shootings — first at the Las Vegas Sun and then at the Review-Journal.
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Attorney David Chesnoff, representing the Review-Journal, said the judge needs to balance First Amendment rights of the media with the interests of police and prosecutors. He also acknowledged Telles’ defense team’s constitutional right to access to information about German’s killing, including identities of other people who might have had a motive to attack him.
“It will have a long-term and chilling effect on sources and journalists receiving information from sources,” Chesnoff said, “if it’s OK to kill a journalist so that then everything that journalist dedicated himself to” can be exposed. “That would be outrageous,” he said.
The Review-Journal argues that police should never have seized German’s cellphone, computers and hard drive. It cites Nevada’s so-called “news shield law” — among the strictest in the U.S. — along with federal Privacy Protection Act and First Amendment safeguards.
“We are dealing with something unique,” the judge observed from the bench. “Everybody in this room is probably on his phone as far as a contact, right? I may be in his contact list.”
Johnson said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department homicide detectives should have access to relevant electronic information. She said German’s files and contact lists could first be reviewed by a three-person team appointed by the court.
“I’m leaning toward two trusted Metro officers that are higher-ups,” along with a respected former U.S. magistrate judge, Johnson said. She set an Oct. 19 date for ruling and added that she “wouldn’t be horrified” if the seven-member Nevada Supreme Court reviewed her decision to provide guidance about how to proceed.
Chesnoff, with Ashley Kissinger also representing the Review-Journal and media, said there was no way to know who in Las Vegas police ranks had ties to the slain reporter. Chesnoff urged Johnson to enlist police investigators from outside Las Vegas for the review panel.
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Attorney Matthew Christian, representing the police department, acknowledged the issue might need state high court review.
But Las Vegas police “have a duty to run down a complete investigation, and the victim’s devices are always part of that,” he said.