U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

New Yorker staff writer subpoenaed for 'all documents' around 2014 article

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 22, 2019
Chicago, Illinois

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of the subpoena outlining broad requests for reporter Nicholas Schmidle's work product

— Screenshot
February 22, 2019

In February, attorneys representing the city of Chicago subpoenaed The New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Schmidle to produce documents in relation to an article published in the magazine in 2014.

A set of separate subpoenas for the reporter’s testimony was served in June and quashed in October.

In 2014, Schmidle wrote a feature story for the New Yorker about Tyrone Hood, who had been convicted of murder in 1996 and sentenced to 75 years in prison. Schmidle’s article included evidence strongly suggesting that Hood was innocent.

In January 2015, outgoing Illinois governor Pat Quinn commuted the prison sentences of a number of prisoners, including Hood, on his last day in office. Because Hood received a commutation, not a pardon, he was let out of jail early but the murder conviction stayed on his record.

At the time, a spokeswoman for Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez told CBS 2 Chicago that Alvarez was “deeply disappointed” with the governor’s decision to commute Hood’s sentence.

Just a month later, though, Alvarez’s office announced that its Conviction Integrity Unit had completed a two-year investigation into Hood’s case, which concluded that Hood’s conviction should be vacated. Alvarez then asked a court to vacate Hood’s conviction, which the court did. Hood was now out of prison and cleared of the murder conviction.

In 2016, Hood filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago and a number of Chicago police officers, accusing them of pressuring witnesses into falsely accusing him of murder.

On Feb. 22, 2019, the defendants’ attorneys mailed the reporter Schmidle a document subpoena. The extremely broad subpoena ordered him to turn over, among other things, “All Documents Nicholas Schmidle received from any person or entity in connection with researching, investigating, preparing or publishing any of the Articles” about Hood. Schmidle’s attorneys objected to the subpoena on March 13, and the defendants seemed to drop it.

In June 2019, Schmidle was served with a subpoena to testify in the case and a second, more complete copy of the same subpoena a week later.

Attorneys for both Hood and Schmidle have opposed the subpoenas for the reporter, arguing that a journalist’s documents and testimony are not relevant to a case that concerns the alleged behavior of Chicago police officers in the early 1990s.

Attorneys for the city of Chicago’s attorneys and the other defendants in Hood’s civil rights have argued that Schmidle’s testimony is essential, using a theory that puts Schmidle at the center of the action.

The defendants’ attorneys have argued that Hood’s civil rights were not violated because he actually is guilty of murder and his murder conviction should not have been vacated. They argue that journalists like Schmidle were tricked into writing a false narrative, which in turn prompted Governor Quinn to commute Hood’s sentence and pressure the state attorney’s office to get Hood’s conviction thrown out.

The current status of the Feb. 22 document subpoena is somewhat unclear. After Schmidle’s attorneys objected to the subpoena in March, the defendants never moved to compel Schmidle to turn over the documents. In effect, they dropped the subpoena. But on July 10, Schmidle received another copy of the document subpoena by email. Once again, Schmidle refused to turn over the documents and the defendants didn’t bother to press the matter.

Schmidle’s attorneys did not ask the judge to quash the document subpoena, but only because it seemed like the defendants had already given up on that one.

“Defendants have not moved to compel responses to the Document Subpoena, and therefore it is not at issue in this motion,” they wrote in the July 23 motion to quash the deposition subpoenas. That motion to quash was granted in October.

Through a New Yorker spokeswoman, Schmidle declined to comment.

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