Judge permits tape of confession to priest to be heard Catholic groups protest, but lawyers prevail

August 04, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Over the protests of a Roman Catholic civil rights group and civil libertarians, a Lane County judge has allowed two defense lawyers to listen to a tape of their client's confession to a Catholic priest.

Judge Jack Billings let Terri Wood and Steve Miller, lawyers for Conan Wayne Hale, a 20-year-old suspect in a triple homicide, listen to the tape of Hale confessing to the Rev. Tim Mockaitis as the two men spoke in April through a partition in the Lane County Jail in Eugene.

But the Rev. Michael Maslowsky, a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Portland, said he will continue to argue that the tape is illegal, and said he had spent more than two months trying to convince the U.S. District Court that the tape should be destroyed.

"That tape never should have been made," said Maslowsky, who made a belated attempt to persuade Judge Owen Panner of U.S. District Court to withhold the tape from the defense lawyers. "Taping a confession is morally and legally impermissible because the priest-penitent relationship is sacred, and protected under the First Amendment."

The New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union agree with Maslowsky. Since May, they have sharply criticized the existence of the tape and said it was the first time government authorities in the United States had ordered the recording of a confession.

Lane County District Attorney Doug Harcleroad, who ordered the taping, apologized in May, saying the taping was "legal and ethical but simply not right." He said that four people -- two deputy district attorneys, a deputy sheriff and a secretary -- had already listened to the tape, but he promised that his office would seal it and not use it in prosecuting Hale.

Still, Hale's lawyers were entitled to review all recorded statements in the possession of the prosecution. Wood, who is Hale's lead defense lawyer, wanted to know what prosecutors had learned from the tape so she could determine what she needed to do about the tape's contents.

"I am defending an individual that the state wants to give the death penalty to," Wood said. "I felt it necessary to vigorously defend my client in any way that I have."

Wood has listened to the tape with Miller, but she is forbidden, by court order, to discuss its contents and will say only that she may use the tape as she defends Hale at his trial, set for July 1997.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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