Protecting sources protects everyone

July 11, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

THE TWO seemingly unrelated events occurring so closely together is one of those quirks of cosmic timing.

About two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case of two reporters who had been ordered by a federal district judge to reveal their anonymous sources. One of those reporters, Judith Miller of The New York Times, went to jail last week rather than reveal the name of her source.

The week Miller went to jail, an anonymous source contacted not the news media, but two lawyers for the family of Christopher Wallace and told them the Los Angeles Police Department was withholding information in a lawsuit.

Wallace died in a hail of bullets on a Los Angeles street in 1997. Two things made his death significant.

First, he was the rapper known as Notorious B.I.G. Wallace died less than a year after Tupac Shakur, his most famous rival - personally and artistically - was shot to death in Las Vegas.

Second, Russell Poole, then a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, alleged that certain corrupt cops on the force who worked for Death Row Records, Shakur's label, might be linked to Wallace's slaying.

Wallace's mother, Voletta Wallace, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles in 2002. It took three years for the case to go to trial. It ended in a mistrial last week when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the LAPD had not handed over all the information it had on the case. The most glaring omissions were statements from a "jailhouse informant" that said former detectives Rafael Perez and David Mack had roles in Christopher Wallace's murder.

Now imagine for a second that the anonymous tipster, instead of telling Voletta Wallace's lawyers, told someone in the news media that the LAPD was withholding information on the case. Suppose department honchos - who should rightfully be embarrassed by the revelation - want to find a head to roll. What better head than the anonymous source, right?

Here's the message the Supreme Court and a federal judge have sent the past two weeks: Go after the anonymous whistle-blowers. And go after the reporters who protect them as news sources.

Who, then, is left to protect those whistle-blowers who alert the public to the abuses and malfeasance of government officials?

I think we can safely rule out Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

That means reporters will have to do it, at the risk of being jailed. But a quick look at only a handful of the facts surrounding the murder of Notorious B.I.G. and some related incidents will show why reporters still need anonymous sources - and why those sources need to be protected.

Poole didn't start out investigating the murder of Christopher Wallace, who was killed March 9, 1997. Poole was assigned to investigate an incident that occurred nine days later.

On March 18, 1997, Kevin Gaines, an off-duty LAPD officer, got into a road-rage incident with Frank Lyga, who was an undercover cop for the same organization.

Gaines pointed a gun at Lyga, who then drew his own weapon and fatally shot Gaines. Grits hit the fan right after the shooting because Gaines was black and Lyga white. It ended with Lyga being portrayed as a racist, violent cop who was out of control and with a lawsuit filed by Gaines' family being settled for $250,000 and sneaked past the Los Angeles City Council.

Had some anonymous sources come forward before then, the city of Los Angeles might have been saved some money. Gaines might have even been fired from the force before the shooting, which might have saved his life.

Poole's investigation revealed that it was Gaines, not Lyga, who was out of control. Gaines had been involved in some previous road-rage incidents in which he pointed his gun at motorists. In addition, he lived a lifestyle far above what his salary as a cop could provide.

Gaines dressed in expensive clothing, drove a Mercedes and had several credit cards, running up a nearly $1,000 tab for one meal at a Los Angeles restaurant. The extra cheese may have come from Gaines' work as a bodyguard for rapper Snoop Dogg. Gaines had no authorization from the LAPD for his moonlighting job.

Poole soon discovered that other LAPD cops were moonlighting - for Death Row Records, a company then being investigated on racketeering allegations by the U.S. Justice Department. Two of those said to be working for Death Row - David Mack and Rafael Perez - ended up behind bars.

Mack was sentenced to 14 years in a federal penitentiary for robbing a bank in 1997. Perez served time for stealing cocaine from an evidence storeroom before becoming the lead snitch in the Rampart police corruption scandal.

Any anonymous tipster who gave a reporter information about either of these two guys may have done so at the risk of his or her life. Reporters should - and will - continue to protect those sources.

Maybe one day federal judges will understand why.

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