A San Francisco State University photojournalism student who was at the scene of a San Francisco Bayview neighborhood street killing was a working journalist in the eyes of state law and did not have to surrender his photos to police, a judge ruled last week.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Tomar Mason ordered police to return evidence they seized from the student’s apartment after the killing, saying the student was covered by California’s shield law for journalists. The law allows journalists to keep sources confidential and to withhold unpublished information from law enforcement.
The 22-year-old student has refused to talk to police about what he saw April 17 when Norris Bennett, 21, was gunned down during a dice game at Griffith Street and Navy Road.
His attorneys say the man fears for his life and does not want his name publicized.
San Francisco police obtained a search warrant for his apartment in May and seized photos and other items. The student, who was with Bennett to gather material for a project on life in the Bayview, demanded that the search warrant be quashed and the items returned to him.
Mason ruled that evidence that the student had been acting as a journalist was “uncontroverted,” said Michael Ng, the student’s attorney.
No one has been arrested in Bennett’s killing.
“We’re just going to try to find another angle – we’re just going to find some witnesses who aren’t cowards, like this student is, hiding behind the shield law,” said San Francisco Police Lt. Mike Stasko of the police homicide detail.
Ng argued that his client was a freelancer, and that courts have ruled that freelancers and bloggers are protected under the shield law.
He told the court that his client was trying to shop the project to the Wall Street Journal and the Bay Area News Group, publisher of the San Jose Mercury, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times.
One blogger wrote, “Not only is this (student) a coward, he should be charged as an accomplice. When an eyewitness refuses to tell the police what he saw, the police cannot do ‘their job’. No sympathy at all.”
Another wrote, “While the police are charged with finding bad guys almost all murders are solved by witnesses or cameras. This young man has the ability to get a killer off the street…but WONT!! This killer could kill your family, your son, daughter or significant other one day. How would you feel if the murdered responsible for the death of your loved one was not in jail because somebody did not want to anonymously drop some photos and a note off at the local police dept. I know I would be very upset…How can SFPD afford witness protection for someone? All they need are the photos…..they do not need the person who took them….Its called being anonymous!!”
From San Francisco Chronicle