WCAX-TV subpoenaed in Vermont criminal trial

December 20, 2020

On Dec. 22, 2020, CBS-affiliate station WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vermont, was subpoenaed by the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office in connection with an interview the channel conducted with William Dunn, a man charged with aggravated assault in a December stabbing incident.

In the video clip, published Dec. 10 on the station’s website, WCAX-TV reporter Christina Guessferd summarizes the case and uses clips from her interview with Dunn. In her report, Guessferd says Dunn told her he acted in self-defense, after his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend barged into their apartment and confronted him in a “violent altercation.” In the video clip, Dunn says “I had to fight for my life.”

On Jan. 15, 2021, the station filed a motion to quash the subpoena, citing the Vermont state shield law that protects journalists from compelled disclosure of information and sources. According to the motion, the State’s Attorney’s Office asked the station to provide “any and all footage, including raw and final as well as all videos, notes, sound bites and information obtained from the interview,” as well as “any and all saved messages or other communication records pertaining to Dunn.”

The station’s motion to quash asserts that the information sought in the raw video, notes and other materials subpoenaed from the interview is available to law enforcement from other sources, including four witnesses present at the time of the incident, as well as the defendant. The motion says that the witness statements support Dunn’s claims that the attacker started the altercation. It says the station’s footage, taken a week after the incident, does not capture the fight that led to the charges.

WCAX-TV contends that the State’s Attorney seeks to compel the station to turn over its recordings, despite the availability of other sources; the station’s motion says no special circumstances have been cited that would warrant an exception to the shield law.

The Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office did not respond to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s request for comment.

WCAX-TV’s lawyer Robert B. Hemley declined to speak about the case without the station’s approval, and the station did not respond to a Tracker request for comment.

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

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