Court: Reporter shielded in James Holmes Colo. shooting case

Jana Winter arrives at district court in Centennial, Colo., on Monday, April 1, 2013.
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

ALBANY, N.Y. - In a narrow ruling, the New York Court of Appeals says Fox News reporter Jana Winter does not have to identify the law enforcement sources who told her that Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting suspect James Holmes had mailed a notebook depicting violence to a psychiatrist before the massacre.

The New York state shield law supports refusing to recognize a Colorado court’s petition to subpoena Winter, the court ruled, 4 to 3.

Lawyers for the suspect, Holmes, wanted Winter, a New York-based reporter, to have to name two law officers who told her Holmes had mailed a notebook containing scribbling of stick figures being shot and a written description of the upcoming attack. They argued that the sources violated a judge's gag order, may have lied under oath about that and won't be credible as trial witnesses.

The mass shooting left 12 people dead in a suburban Denver movie theater last year.

"There is a substantial likelihood that a New York reporter will be compelled to divulge the identity of a confidential source (or face a contempt sanction) if required to appear in the other jurisdiction (Colorado) - a result that would offend the core protections of the shield law, a New York public policy of the highest order," the court said in overturning a mid-level appeals court's decision that supported the subpoena.

One dissenting judge said New York's law does not protect Winter because the privileged communications with her sources took place in another state.

Winter's attorney welcomed the ruling.

"We are absolutely thrilled and delighted that New York state's highest court has once again reaffirmed how important the protection of confidential sources is to the proper functioning of our society," said the attorney, Dori Hanswirth.

Hanswirth said she did not know whether Holmes' attorneys would appeal to federal court but said a federal judge would have no jurisdiction.

"This case is over as far as Jana Winter," Hanswirth said. "She does not have to appear in Colorado again and she will not appear."

The defense wanted Winter to identify the sources so Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. in Colorado could somehow punish them.

Daniel King, one of Holmes' attorneys, did not initially return a call seeking comment. Defense lawyers and prosecutors routinely decline to comment, citing the gag order.

The impact of Winter's victory on the overall case against Holmes will likely be minimal, however.

Holmes is accused of opening fire on a packed audience in a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in July 2012. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. Defense lawyers have acknowledged Holmes was the shooter, and the central question is whether he was legally insane at the time.

Holmes' trial has been postponed indefinitely while attorneys argue a prosecution motion seeking further psychiatric evaluation.