U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Newspaper subpoenaed for reporter’s notes from jailhouse interview

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 3, 2023

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of a subpoena issued to The Bakersfield Californian on March 3, 2023, seeking recordings or notes from reporter Ishani Desai’s jailhouse interview with a defendant charged with murder.

March 3, 2023

The Bakersfield Californian was subpoenaed on March 3, 2023, for copies of unpublished materials from a jailhouse interview conducted by one of the newspaper’s reporters. While the subpoena was quashed on April 4, a nearly identical subpoena was issued the same day. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented the second subpoena here.

The dispute began after Californian reporter Ishani Desai conducted a jailhouse interview in February with Sebastian Parra. Parra was a key witness in the murder indictment of another inmate, Robert Pernell Roberts, but was subsequently indicted as a co-defendant.

The Californian published Desai’s article about Parra on Feb. 26. On March 3, public defender Alexandria Blythe, who represents Roberts, subpoenaed the newspaper seeking any audio or video recordings of the interview or, if no recording exists, a copy of Desai’s notes and interview questions. The subpoena ordered the newspaper to provide the records by March 20, and whomever has access to the records to attend the hearing on that date.

An attorney representing the newspaper, Thomas Burke, filed objections to the subpoena on March 7. He argued that in addition to the subpoena being improperly filed, all of the requested materials are privileged under California Shield Law, the state constitution and the First Amendment.

On March 15, Blythe reissued the subpoena after correctly notifying The Californian, but kept the March 20 deadline. The newspaper filed a motion to quash the subpoena the following day.

“For decades, California law has protected newsgathering from intrusive measures by overzealous parties involved in criminal and civil cases,” Burke wrote. “[These] subpoenas are precisely the type of overreach that the Shield Law is designed to prevent.”

Kern County Superior Court Judge Elizabet Rodriguez quashed the subpoena on April 4, ruling that Blythe had not shown that the documents would assist in Roberts’ defense. Burke told the Tracker that the judge invited Blythe to refile. According to court records, an identical subpoena was issued that day but not served on The Californian until April 10.

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