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In re Owens

February 17, 1998

IN RE SARAH LYNN OWENS


Appeal by Sarah Lynn Owens from conviction of criminal contempt entered 7 February 1997 by Judge Robert L. Farmer in Wake County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 27 October 1997.

Karen Boychuk was found dead on 31 December 1995. Her husband, William James Boychuk, reported to police that he and his wife had been struck by a vehicle on a Cary Parkway bridge. During the police investigation into his wife's death, Boychuk hired G. Bryan Collins to represent him. Boychuk was later indicted for the murder of his wife.

During a hearing in Wake County Superior Court, Assistant District Attorney R. Thomas Ford announced his intention to introduce into evidence comments made by Collins to the media which contradicted Boychuk's earlier account of the sequence of events. During several media interviews, Collins reported that Boychuk stated that after being hit by the car he went down the embankment looking for his wife and was knocked unconscious when he slipped and fell. Initially, Boychuk reported to the police that he was knocked unconscious after being hit by the car. The State asserted that the differing accounts of when Boychuk was knocked unconscious were admissible evidence of "consciousness of guilt." Boychuk filed a motion in limine requesting that the evidence be found inadmissible on grounds that it was irrelevant and deprived him of his right to counsel.

The State subpoenaed Sarah Lynn Owens, a television reporter, and two newspaper reporters to testify at the hearing on the motion in limine. A motion to quash the subpoena was filed on behalf of all three reporters, who asserted a qualified privilege under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, § 14 of the North Carolina Constitution and a lack of relevant information due to uncertainty regarding Collins' authorization to speak for Boychuk.

After Owens was sworn in, the following dialogue ensued: Mr. Ford: I take it you were a general reporter or reporter who goes out of the station to gather news?

Ms. Owens: Your Honor, I apologize. I respectfully decline to answer that question.

Mr. Ford: Well, I don't know how this lady could possibly have any privilege whatsoever in anybody's eyes about what kind of work she did at that time.

Court: You may answer the question. The Court directs you to answer the question.

Ms. Owens: I mentioned earlier I was a reporter.

Mr. Ford: Okay. Well, maybe I'm the one that's ignorant, but do all the reporters for TV stations go out and gather news, or do some of them, or is it just the anchor people that stay in the place?

Ms. Owens: Reporters gather the news.

Mr. Ford: Okay. Did you have occasion as pursuant to your employment to gather news by taking a statement from Mr. Collins in January of 1996?

Ms. Owens: Mr. Ford, I respectfully decline to answer the question.

Mr. Ford: Ma'am, you went on a TV news broadcast, did you not, in person, and aired footage from somewhere of Mr. Collins, did you not? Let me ask you this. Were you in the courtroom ...


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