National Press Club

True crime novelist, jailed for protecting sources, to discuss experience, June 1

May 8, 2015 | By Ferdous Al-Faruque | alfaruque@gmail.com

After watching two passenger planes slam into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, Vanessa Leggett almost caved in.

The aspiring crime novelist was behind bars at the time because she refused to hand over four years worth of recorded interviews she had gathered investigating the 1997 murder of Texas socialite Doris Angleton.

Leggett is just one of only a handful of American journalists and writers that have gone to jail rather than disclose the identity of an anonymous source. In conjunction with International Whistleblowers week, she and about a dozen other “jailbird” reporters will gather at 6 p.m., Monday June 1 in the Murrow Room to discuss the need for stronger legal protections for journalists.

The historic two-hour symposium is open to the public and is sponsored in part by the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee. Tickets are $5 for Club members and $10 for nonmembers.

In Leggett’s case, the federal government said it wanted to prosecute Doris' husband, Robert Angleton, for the crime but wanted Leggett's interviews to build their case, and she was not allowed to keep any copies.

Though not a trained journalist, she instinctively knew that caving in to the government's demands would put her sources at risk. Because of her refusal, she was held in civil contempt at a detention center in Houston until she complied or the grand jury's term in her case expired.

Now 58 days into her ordeal, the world felt like it was on fire, and Leggett started to falter in her resolve. The part-time University of Houston writing instructor just wanted be with her mother and husband. Though the jail had gone into lock down after the terrorist attacks, Leggett could still call her lawyer and agree to hand over her recordings.

“I was convinced it was the end of the world, I really was, and that was my weakest moment,” Leggett said. But in the end she held fast and served a total of 168 days, the longest such incarceration of a reporter in U.S. history.

Besides protecting her sources and ensuring that the government did not interfere with her ability to inform the public, Leggett said her overarching objective has been to make sure Doris’s story is told. She said Robert was a known bookie to Houston’s elite, and a prized informant for local law enforcement and investigators. She speculates that this long-term relationship may have contributed to his ability to evade the law so far.

"If they would have succeeded and gotten the information from me including all my copies, I am highly confident I would never have seen my information again...and there's no way I would be able to publish the stuff that I have without proof," Leggett said.

Despite Leggett's ordeal, the government was able to convene another grand jury and get an indictment against Robert without her interviews only four days after her release on January 8, 2002.

Since then Robert has escaped to the Netherlands and is seeking asylum while the U.S. government is seeking his extradition. In the meantime, Leggett has continued to teach and work on her book about Doris' murder, which she says only needs a final chapter and should be complete before year's end.

Leggett said some people tell her that maybe she should not have promised her sources to keep their identities safe but she doesn't regret the decision.

“If I ever have grandchildren and they ask me where I was on 9/11, ... I’ll be proud to tell them I was [in jail] voluntarily, protecting my sources and keeping my promises,” Leggett said.

The symposium is sponsored by The National Press Club Journalism Institute, The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, The First Amendment Coalition, Expose Facts.Org, The Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Association and the Institute for Public Accuracy.

For more information about the event, please email Nicole Hoffman at nhoffman@press.org.