Photojournalist refuses to release O’Neal pictures

Tuesday, April 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:10 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Columbia Daily Tribune photographer who was taking pictures at the voluntary practice last summer where MU football player Aaron O’Neal collapsed said in a deposition Monday that she will not turn over the photographs she took that day. Attorneys for both sides are seeking those photos in the wrongful death suit.

Photographer Jenna Isaacson had said in news interviews that she would not produce the photos unless ordered to do so, but the deposition was the first time she’d refused in an official court proceeding. Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler ruled Wednesday that the court should have an on-the-record statement of her refusal to give them up before ordering her to do so, after a March 20 hearing, during which attorneys representing the O’Neals and MU made their case for access to the photos.

Aaron O’Neal’s father, Lonnie, filed the suit against 14 MU athletic department employees on August 23, 2005, saying they were negligent in their treatment of his son. Aaron O’Neal’s mother, Deborah, joined the lawsuit on Oct. 11. Among the defendants listed in the lawsuit are athletic director Mike Alden, football coach Gary Pinkel, and football team medical director Rex Sharp.

The Missourian reported that some of the 622 photographs in question show O’Neal collapsing and leaving Faurot Field with the help of a teammate and the reactions of coaches and trainers, about an hour before O’Neal died. Because the photos are marked with time stamps, they would allow attorneys to present a visual reconstruction of the scene.

Isaacson, along with a court reporter, Tribune associate publisher Vicky Russel, and attorneys representing O’Neal’s parents met in the Tribune’s office Monday morning to take the deposition. Tribune attorney Jean Maneke was present by speaker phone.

Maneke said that at the deposition, Isaacson was asked whether she would be willing to voluntarily give the court the photos, and she was questioned about how many photos she took and news articles in which she discussed them.

Chris Bauman, the St. Louis lawyer representing Lonnie O’Neal, said that with Isaacson’s refusal on the record, he will again ask Oxenhandler to order Isaacson to produce the photos, and that he expects Oxenhandler will rule in his favor.

“When I asked her to give specific facts as to why she thinks any First Amendment rights or responsibilities of the press are going to be infringed if she turns over these photographs, she had none,” Bauman said.

Isaacson and managing editor Jim Robertson have argued that the court shouldn’t have access to a photographer’s unpublished photos, which they compare to a reporter’s notes.

Furthermore, Robertson said in an interview Monday, the photographs should not be turned over because doing so “interferes” with the editorial process, and giving them up to the court would make the Tribune a tool of the courts.

Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at MU’s School of Journalism, agreed that a photographer’s unpublished photos are the work product of photojournalists, just as notes in a notebook are the work product of reporters. But in Missouri, which has no shield law, he said, the photos are not protected by the law.

Robertson said he would not stand in the way of Isaacson testifying about what she saw at the practice.

“When you see an event, whether it’s a crime, or in this case a closed practice, and you witness it as a reporter or a photographer, we feel that there is a compelling reason to be a citizen in that case and tell what you saw,” Robertson said.

O’Neal collapsed at the end of a pre-season strength and conditioning workout run by coaches and trainers on July 12.

When O’Neal arrived at the Tom Taylor Athletic Facility, he lost consciousness, and trainers tried to revive him and called 911. O’Neal died at University Hospital at 4:05 p.m. that day. Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao determined the cause of death to be viral meningitis.

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