A free-lance writer was ordered jailed Wednesday for refusing to answer questions about his interview with the woman accused in the death of comedian John Belushi and to surrender a tape of the conversation.
Prosecutors said the tape is critical evidence in their second-degree murder case against Cathy Evelyn Smith, 38, who is accused of giving Belushi fatal drug injections at a Sunset Strip hotel in March, 1982.
Municipal Judge James Nelson issued the contempt ruling last week after writer Chris Van Ness refused to surrender the tape--in which Smith reportedly confessed to giving Belushi more than 20 drug injections in the final 24 hours of his life--or to answer questions about the April, 1982, telephone interview with Smith from her hometown of Toronto.
Nelson ordered Van Ness to serve 10 days in jail for contempt of court.
Before the bearded interviewer was led out of court in handcuffs to a nearby holding cell, however, the judge said he would have to serve only five days if he agrees to give the tape to his attorney for safekeeping while an appellate court decides whether he is entitled to withhold the tape under California's reporter shield law.
Attorney Clinton Bailey said the tape had been removed from Van Ness' home to prevent possible seizure should prosecutors ask for a search warrant. Bailey told the judge that he might be able to get the tape by Wednesday night.
Outside court, Bailey indicated that Van Ness "might do the 10 days" if it meant being able to keep the tape out of court.
Van Ness, of Los Angeles, tried to sell the tape to the National Enquirer and later sued the tabloid for allegedly "stealing" his story. The magazine's own reporters interviewed Smith, and the resulting story appeared under the headline "I Killed John Belushi."
Van Ness returned to Nelson's court after a Superior Court judge Wednesday morning refused to block the contempt order.
Nelson also refused to further delay jailing the free-lance writer after Bailey announced he had filed a request with the 2nd District Court of Appeal to void the contempt order.
Noting that both he and Superior Court Judge Robert Devich had decided that Van Ness was not covered by the shield law because he is a free-lance writer and not employed full time by a news organization, Nelson told Bailey, "I don't thing the First Amendment issue is a legitimate one anymore."
Even if Van Ness were protected by the law and did not have to answer questions, Nelson ruled, the tape still must be surrendered because "the privilege applies to the person, not to the object."
Nelson then asked Van Ness once more if he would answer questions about the interview with Smith or turn over the tape.
"With respect to the court, no, I will not," Van Ness replied to both inquiries.
Van Ness was then handcuffed by the bailiff and led from the courtroom, declining comment to reporters following him.
The judge also denied a prosecution request to compel Van Ness to disclose the whereabouts of the tape. Prosecutors expressed worry that the tape "would be destroyed" after Van Ness is released from jail.