Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters were sentenced Thursday to up to 18 months in jail for refusing to reveal who gave them secret testimony on the use of steroids by baseball's Barry Bonds and other star athletes.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in San Francisco was immediately stayed, pending an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, enabling reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada to remain free.
Still, the decision raised the stakes in a closely watched case. It has been cast as a conflict between the 1st Amendment and reporters' ability to gather news versus prosecutors' interest in maintaining grand jury secrecy so that they can get reliable testimony in criminal investigations.
Williams and Fainaru-Wada were subpoenaed to a federal grand jury in May to reveal who gave them testimony by Major League Baseball players Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield in the federal probe of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO. Both reporters refused to reveal their sources, and lawyers for their newspaper have argued that forcing the journalists to do so would undermine their efforts to perform the public service of exposing wrongdoing.
The reporters used the testimony in a series of stories and a book on steroid abuse that sparked national debate and pushed Major League Baseball to punish steroid users.
In a ruling in August, however, White found that the secrecy of grand jury proceedings was critical to the system of justice and outweighed the news media's need to promise confidentiality to sources possessing vital information.
He also accepted federal prosecutors' arguments that journalists have no special protection from grand jury inquiries, citing the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Branzburg vs. Hayes, as well as subsequent rulings from appellate courts.
Prosecutors asked White to send the reporters to jail while the grand jury investigates the leak, or until they agree to testify.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, where the federal prosecutors in the case are based, noted that the judge "adopted in his ruling all of the requests made by the government."
Mrozek declined to characterize the prosecutors' reaction to the maximum 18-month sentencing, saying only: "What would make us satisfied is to obtain the testimony of the two reporters."
Eve Burton, general counsel for Hearst Corp., owner of the Chronicle, said prosecutors have wrongly characterized the case as a grand jury leak, when it really was no more than "bread-and-butter reporting over a criminal case in a federal courthouse."
She said she would ask the appellate court to "reinstate the balancing that the law requires, balancing the importance of stories in changing the face of baseball ... against the importance of the law enforcement needs to investigate a crime."
Phil Bronstein, editor and executive vice president of the Chronicle, also expressed his disappointment with the decision, saying: "When reporters who are just doing their job are looking at prison time, that's never a good thing. The public is not well-served."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.