SAN FRANCISCO – Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters plan to appeal a federal judge's order to jail them until they agree to testify about who leaked them secret grand jury testimony from Barry Bonds and other elite athletes.
Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada won't have to report to prison pending their appeal of Thursday's ruling, which could keep them behind bars for more than a year.
The reporters repeatedly have said they would rather go to jail than reveal how they obtained the transcripts from a grand jury that investigated the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. The pair published a series of articles and a book based partly on the leaked testimony by Bonds, Jason Giambi and others.
"I'm supposed to keep my promises when people help me and take me at my word," Williams said in court Thursday. "I do despair for our country if we go very far down this road, because no one will talk to reporters."
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White rejected the reporters' request for simply a monetary fine, or even house arrest, saying that prison time would best compel them to testify before the grand jury investigating the leak.
"The court is hopeful that perhaps they'll reconsider their position when faced with the reality of incarceration," White said.
Federal prosecutors had asked the judge to send the reporters to prison for a maximum of 18 months — the length of a typical grand jury term.
If the reporters refuse to cooperate, they could remain in prison until the current grand jury term expires, which could happen as late as October 2007, according to court documents. The government also could convene another grand jury if the first one expires without a resolution.
Both sides agreed to stay Thursday's ruling pending an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Authorities want to charge whoever unlawfully leaked the transcripts, and told White that the reporters are the only ones who know who did. White ordered the two to testify on Aug. 15.
The criminal conduct being investigated in the Bonds leak case includes possible perjury and obstruction of justice by government officials, defendants in the BALCO probe and their attorneys. All had access to the leaked documents, but have sworn they weren't the source of the reporting by Williams and Fainaru-Wada.
In August, White ruled his hands were tied by a 1972 Supreme Court precedent that said no one — journalists included — was above the law and may refuse to testify before a federal grand jury.
Chronicle executive vice president and editor Phil Bronstein said the case highlighted the need for a federal law to protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources.
"It's a tragedy that the government seeks to put reporters in jail for doing their job," said Bronstein, standing with the two reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing.
A bipartisan bill currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee would give reporters protection from revealing their confidential sources in cases that involve federal authorities. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have media shield laws already in place.
The Chronicle reported that Bonds told the grand jury that he believed he was using flaxseed oil and arthritic balm, not steroids, supplied by trainer Greg Anderson, one of five defendants convicted in the BALCO scandal.
Anderson served his three months and is behind bars again for refusing to testify before another federal grand jury investigating whether Bonds committed perjury when he gave that testimony in the BALCO case.