Two TV Journalists Fight Grand Jury Subpoena After Interviewing Suge Knight in Prison

Suge Knight - 2016 Pretrial Hearing - Getty - H 2017
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As Death Row Records co-founder Marion "Suge" Knight prepares to defend himself at a murder trial, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has convened an emergency hearing Tuesday morning to discuss an application by two journalists who have been summoned to testify before a grand jury.

Nora Donaghy and William Erb are documentary filmmakers currently at work as producers for eOne on a six-part series titled Death Row Chronicles, which is scheduled to premiere on BET in February and will chart the rise and fall of the record label that hit it big with hip-hop stars Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. The filmmakers have gathered interviews with insiders including Knight and promise a firsthand, eyewitness account of Shakur's murder. The production could hit television just as Knight goes on trial for the hit-and-run incident that killed Terry Carter on the Straight Outta Compton film set.

According to a filed declaration by Donaghy, whose work includes Darfur Now, Betting on Zero and the Emmy-nominated L.A. Burning, two law enforcement officers showed up at her home on the morning of Jan. 18. She says she was "shocked and terrified," and the officers presented her with a search warrant.

A copy of the search warrant reviewed by The Hollywood Reporter seeks evidence of an alleged conspiracy to violate court orders related to Knight's pending murder prosecution. 

"One of the officers told me that I was required by the warrant to hand over my cell phone," she continued in her declaration. "They also asked me for my passcode and asked me to type the passcode into the phone in their presence to make sure it worked. Believing I had no alternative and frightened by the unexpected arrival of two homicide officers at my home, early in the morning, I gave them my iPhone and the passcode and showed them it worked."

According to court papers, the officers then took her phone, which Donaghy says contains unpublished editorial information about various investigative journalistic projects as well as "highly sensitive" material about sources and communications with colleagues.

Meanwhile, Erb, whose work includes Addicted to Food for the Oprah Winfrey Network, says in his own declaration that he received a phone call late last year from a man identifying himself as an investigator in the police department, who told him that he "knew" eOne had done an interview with Knight, and that Knight had violated the law by doing so. Erb continues by saying that on Jan. 17, L.A. detectives showed up at his home and served a Grand Jury subpoena commanding him to appear within days.

The two journalists subsequently filed an application to quash the grand jury subpoenas and order a return of seized news-gathering materials. Represented by Kelli Sager at Davis Wright Tremaine, the two blast a "shocking disregard of state law" and say, "This is the kind of gross overreaching that California's shield law and related provisions have been designed to prevent."

In response, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office is arguing that once a journalist reveals the identity of the source of information, that journalist no longer has immunity from contempt proceedings. The DA's position is also that the shield law is inapplicable when the warrant seeks information beyond confidential sources. Further, it's contended that police officers are not required to advise a journalist about his or her rights when responding to a request for testimony and materials.

Sager disputes that the journalists "waived" rights by responding to a question from an investigator. 

"The notion that government agents can seize a journalist's cell phone, force journalists to testify about individuals who provide information to them (or who facilitated such disclosures), and engage in draconian harassment of a television production company and its personnel is the kind of thing one might expect from a third-world dictatorship," states the motion to quash. "California's Legislature and electorate, supported by decades of court decisions, expressly and emphatically forbid these practices. Consequently, it is surprising and disappointing that — even after being provided with the legal citations contained in this Motion — the D.A. refused to back down, forcing eOne to expend thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees to defend the rights of its journalists. The justification for the D.A.'s heavy-handed conduct is equally surprising. This is not a case where information is sought to locate a kidnapped child, capture a serial killer, or even convict an accused murderer. Here, what is at stake is the alleged violation of a court order by a prisoner in giving an interview to a documentary television producer."

Aggressive tactics by law enforcement have been bubbling up to the surface in the weeks before Knight's trial. Earlier this month, Knight filed a motion accusing the L.A. Sherriff's Department of eavesdropping on meetings with his attorneys.

At the time this story was initially published, the court hearing was scheduled to begin behind closed doors. We'll update the report once it is finished with any ruling.