U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

New Yorker staff writer subpoenaed for testimony in civil rights lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
June 18, 2019
Chicago, Illinois

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of the subpoena seeking testimony from reporter Nicholas Schmidle about a 2014 article published in The New Yorker

— Screenshot
June 18, 2019

In June, attorneys representing the City of Chicago subpoenaed New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Schmidle to testify about his sources for an article published in 2014. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., then quashed the subpoenas in October.

A separate subpoena for documents was served to Schmidle in February.

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 June 18, 2019, the reporter Schmidle was served with a subpoena to testify in the case. The subpoena ordered him to submit to a deposition at a “TBD” location on July 12. About a week later, a process server tried to drop off a new copy of the subpoena (which included the location of the deposition) but Schmidle refused to open his door.

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.

On July 23, Schmidle’s attorneys asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C. to quash the two deposition subpoenas, on the grounds that the subpoenas were improperly served, Schmidle’s testimony was unnecessary and Schmidle could not be forced to testify because he was a journalist.

The defendants’ attorneys defended their decision to subpoena Schmidle’s testimony, filing a response to Schmidle’s motion to quash that detailed their quasi-conspiratorial theory about Schmidle’s central role in getting Hood’s conviction tossed out.

“Defendants seek to take Schmidle’s deposition to explore his role in Hood’s coordinated media campaign, because that campaign was critical to Hood convincing Gov. Quinn to grant clemency,” the defendants’ attorneys wrote.

On Oct. 18, Judge Amit Mehta of the District of Columbia District Court ordered the two deposition subpoenas quashed. Mehta found that, while the subpoenas had been properly served, the defendants had not shown that they had “exhausted every reasonable alternative source of information,” which they must do before forcing a journalist to testify. If the defendants wanted to learn about Schmidle’s communications with his sources, Mehta said, then they should subpoena those sources, rather than Schmidle.

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].