Judge says O’Neal photos must be released

Thursday, April 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:51 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

A 13th Judicial Circuit judge ordered the Columbia Daily Tribune on Wednesday to turn over unpublished photos that show the last practice of MU football player Aaron O’Neal’s life to attorneys on both sides of a wrongful death lawsuit.

Tribune photographer Jenna Isaacson captured images of O’Neal collapsing on Faurot Field at the end of a preseason workout on July 12, 2005. He died about an hour after the practice.

O’Neal’s father, Lonnie O’Neal, was dissatisfied with the way athletic staff treated his son and filed suit against 14 MU employees. Deborah O’Neal, Aaron O’Neal’s mother, later joined the suit.

Lawyers for both MU and the O’Neals want access to the 622 photos — 18 of which were published — but Isaacson said she wouldn’t turn them over unless ordered to do so by a judge. Judge Gary Oxenhandler ordered the Tribune to produce the 604 unpublished photos within the next 10 days.

Tribune managing editor Jim Robertson said he had hoped the judge would rule in the Tribune’s favor, but it might not be over yet. “Now we’ve got two options: to let them have the materials, or to appeal it,” he said.

Isaacson was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Chris Bauman, the attorney for Lonnie O’Neal, said he is confident he will get the photos.

Oxenhandler wrote in his ruling that “the record is absolutely clear” that no promise existed between Isaacson and MU that the photos would be confidential. Tribune attorney Jean Maneke had argued that there was a perception or inference that unpublished photos would be confidential, but Oxenhandler said such impressions don’t rise to the level of confidentiality.

“I think this really points out the need for a shield law,” Robertson said.

Oxenhandler ruled that although there is no shield law in Missouri, the attorneys’ request for the photos met three conditions typical of a shield law: the photos are relevant to their case, information from the photos is necessary or critical to their cases and all alternative sources for the information have been exhausted. In his ruling, Oxenhandler noted that the photos provide the only known photographic history of the events on the field.

Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said the ruling sends the message that journalists can’t legally enforce the promises they make to their sources.

“In this case it shows that they have no control over their own work product,” he said. “What this tells subjects that work with journalists is that courts can reach down and grab things.”

Davis said that in this case, the lawyers for MU and the O’Neals haven’t proven that the unpublished photos are directly relevant to the outcome of their cases.

“I think they say, ‘we’re fishing,’ ” he said. “That’s exactly the kind of thing that we in the press camp are worried about. People are rifling through our stuff. There’s got to be some sanctity.”

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