Indictment of a Georgia journalist on charges of attempting to aid in the escape of six death-row prisoners may raise constitutional questions, including freedom of the press and freedom from illegal search and seizure.
It also pits the state's major law-enforcement agency, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), against a veteran journalist who earlier this year wrote articles in which drug dealers alleged the involvement of a top GBI officer in illegal drug dealing.
The indicted journalist, Charles Postell, state editor of the Albany Herald, had been in close contact with the six prisoners at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville -- four of whom eventually escaped in July. He has written a book (not yet published) about one of the six before the escape and admits he is fascinated as a journalist by death-row inmates.
He is accused by the GBI of aiding the escape by driving his wife to a hardware store where she purchased hacksaw blades. The blades, according to the indictment, were given by his wife, Judi, to an aunt of one of the escapees, who mailed them to the prison, where they were intercepted by officials. But another set of hacksaw blades, allegedly sent by a niece of one of the prisoners , reached them.
The four escapees used the blades on their death-row cell bars from where they went through windows, climbed down a roof using sheets, and walked through an unlocked fence gate to freedom. Three of the men were soon captured; the fourth was killed in a brawl.
A prison guard and three relatives of the escapees have been indicted along with Postell and his wife.
Postell agreed that he interviewed the accused aunt the day his wife allegedly purchased the hacksaw blades. And, he says, he heard a comment by the aunt prior to the escape that she (the aunt) didn't blame the men if they tried to escape.
In a Monitor telephone interview after his indictment, Postell said the charges against him and his wife are "ridiculous."
Prior to Postell's indictment, his newspaper filed suit in district court alleging one of the reasons the GBI searched his home after the prison break was to "silence" him. The suit notes Postell has been reporting on possible wrongdoing in the GBI.
GBI deputy director Thomas McGreevy told the Monitor the GBI agent mentioned in Postell's articles is a veteran officer. After the allegations about the officer appeared in print, the GBI investigated the charges and found them unsubstantiated, he said.
Postell says he based the articles primarily on tapped telephone conversations he had access to between drug dealers who kept mentioning the officer's name as involved illegally.
In one article, a convicted criminal recalled a conversation naming the officer as "part of the gang" of drug dealers, Mr. McGreevy said, reading from the article. But McGreevy stressed the unreliability of such statements and the people making them.
When the prison break occurred July 28 one or more of the escapees called Postell, telling him they had escaped. Postell called the prison several times to report an apparent escape.
GBI agents were sent to Postell's home, where he does much of his journalistic research. They were sent to guard him from the escapees and intercept further calls from them. When Postell awoke at 3:30 a.m. he found an agent coming out of his (Postell's) office.
After these agents departed, other GBI agents arrived with a search warrant. According to McGreevy, they were looking for letters and evidence that Postell purchased pajamas the escapees fashioned into outfits resembling guards' uniforms. The agents seized five letters.
US District Court Judge Wilbur Owens ruled that the search was "illegal" and violated the Fourth Amendment. The GBI contends the letters copied were in plain view, thus subject to being copied legally.