NEW YORK TIMES
Monday, April 10, 2000
CRIME BOOK MAY BECOME PAGE IN CANADIAN LAW
By James Brooke
TORONTO - Stephen 'Williams, the author of a best-selling crime book sees the day coming when he will be called to a witness stand and ordered to identity who gave him precise details of a gory sex murder scene in the tale.
“As soon as I refuse to do that, they are going to toss me in jail,” the author of "Invisible. Darkness" (Bantam) said in a telephone interview from his farm north of here.
In Canada, a country often called politely authoritarian, advocates for freedom of the press hope the Williams case will set a precedent for the kind of reporter's shield legislation that spread in the United States in the 1970's. Today, 30, states have laws that give reporters varying degrees of protection to shield their sources from public identification.
"This is one case where Canada should follow its neighbor to the south; you can't have vigorous reporting without laws protecting sources” said Tom Goldstein dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism.
“If you can’t protect sources and the sources can’t be assured that they will be protected, they hesitate to talk.”
Normally, Canadian prosecutors avoid confrontations on shild issues and the murders in question have already resulted in convictions and jail time.
But in Canada where the founding motto in 1867 was “peace, order and good government” courts histoically have not believed there is much privileged about the relationship between a reporter and a source.
“There has never been a case in Canada where a journalist has been excused from answering a question about a source,” said Alan N. Young, who is defending Mr. Williams.
And the prospects for setting a precedent do not look good. Mr. Williams was charged with two counts of disobeying a judge’s order, and lost his motions to have the case dismissed. The charges stem from the belief that Mr. Williams saw a videotape of two sex murders that a judge had barred from the public.
Pouring over Mr. Williams 657-page book, detectives say they came up with 27 passages that they believe were based on watching the tapes. Mr. Williams has denied seeing the tapes, a denial he repeated in the interview. He said he had gotten almost all the details from material available to the public and would not say where he got the rest.
In court last fall, the government stated that 69 people authorized by the court, most prosecutors, had reviewed the restricted videotapes.
Mr. Williams commented “It would be professional suicide for anyone who had access to the tapes to show them” to unauthorized people. They would lose everything they had - lawyers would be disbarred, doctors would have their licences revoked, cops would lose their pensions and be fired.”
So far, the Ontario judge, David Fairgrieve, has ruled that Mr. Williams’ book can be used as evidence against him. He has deferred ruling on the issue of journalistic priviledge until it comes up in trial.
Prosecutors in the case declined to comment. David Paciocco, a former prosecutor, said Canadian courts “have a general aversion to recognizing privileges.”
Mr. Paciocco, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said prosecutors generally tried to work around privilege claims. “No one wants to get into a showdown with a stubborn journalist, one who might go to jail to protect a source,” he said.