U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

California reporter subpoenaed to testify at murder trial

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 24, 2023

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of the subpoena issued to reporter Ishani Desai on May 24, 2023, ordering her to appear to testify at a murder trial concerning a jailhouse interview she conducted for The Bakersfield Californian.

May 24, 2023

Reporter Ishani Desai was subpoenaed on May 24, 2023, to testify at a murder trial in connection with her reporting for The Bakersfield Californian. The subpoena was the third seeking information from Desai’s jailhouse interview with a co-defendant in the case.

The dispute began after Desai interviewed Sebastian Parra for an article published by the Californian on Feb. 26. Parra was a key witness in the murder indictment of another inmate, Robert Pernell Roberts, but was himself subsequently indicted as a co-defendant.

The newspaper was subpoenaed twice earlier in the year seeking recordings from Desai’s interview or her questions and notes. While the first subpoena was quashed, a Kern County Superior Court judge upheld the second on May 10, giving the newspaper one week to turn over the materials. The newspaper refused and was found in contempt of court on May 24.

Desai was subpoenaed that same day to testify at Roberts’ trial, then scheduled for May 31, according to court filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

After an appeal by the newspaper, California's Court of Appeals for the Fifth Appellate District ruled on Nov. 7 that the lower court was incorrect in holding the Californian in contempt, but justified in ordering the newspaper to turn over Desai’s newsgathering materials.

The ruling acknowledged the subpoena for Desai’s trial testimony, but wrote that the appellate court was not judging its enforceability.

Desai did not respond to a request for comment. The Californian’s attorney, Thomas Burke, said when reached by email that he is still discussing next steps with his clients.

Meanwhile, Parra’s trial has been placed on hold pending the resolution of Desai and the Californian’s subpoenas, Courthouse News reported.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].