A Baltimore City Paper reporter testified in a federal murder-for-hire trial Thursday, drawn into the story of a man whose career as a builder and petty criminal he has covered for more than half a decade.
Edward Ericson Jr., a staff writer for the alternative weekly, first wrote about defendant Jose Morales in 2006 in an article questioning his building practices.
Morales was later convicted on federal drug charges. He's now on trial in the death of Robert Long, a man who had been working with authorities against Morales in a theft case.
The Morales case has been years in the making — another man was convicted, then released, in Long's death — and Ericson has covered many of the twists and turns.
Federal prosecutors are calling some unusual witnesses to establish why they say it was Morales who had a motive to silence Long.
Stanley Needleman, a lawyer who represented Morales in the theft case, will testify about conversations with Morales before and after Long's killing, prosecutors wrote in case filings.
Needleman told investigators that Morales confessed the killing to him one day on steps of the Baltimore City Circuit Court House, according to documents unsealed Thursday. Ericson had interviewed the pair that day, and a City Paper photographer snapped them leaving the building.
Ericson testified that he spoke to Morales in a courthouse elevator and asked him what would happen to the charges now that Long was dead. "They're going to nolle it, they just don't know it yet," Ericson recalled Morales saying, "Nolle prosequi" is the legal term for when prosecutors decline to pursue charges. The theft case was eventually dropped.
Using journalists and lawyers as witnesses presents prosecutors with challenges: Department of Justice regulations give reporters some protection from testifying, and the law grants privileges to communication between lawyers and their clients.
Despite his close coverage of Morales, Ericson said it did not cross his mind that he might be called as a witness. "I was very surprised to get a call from a federal prosecutor and not at all happy about it," he said.
Ericson said in an interview that he agreed to testify after federal prosecutors said they would ask only about things that had been published.
They also agreed to call him early in the trial, because he had been barred by the court from covering the proceeding until he testified. After his time on the witness stand ended, he quickly took a seat in the gallery and pulled out a pen.
It's unusual for a journalist to be subpoenaed as a witness. Though there is no federal law that exempts reporters from being compelled to reveal their sources, Justice Department policy calls for prosecutors to get approval from headquarters if they want to put a reporter on the stand.
Prosecutors are also instructed to negotiate with journalists and news organizations over what materials they want, according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
Typically, reporters' notes and other unpublished material are treated as more sensitive than details that appear online or in print.
Eric Easton, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said taking the stand carries risks for a journalist — even with assurances of the sort Ericson said he was given.
"The prosecutor can make a deal with the City Paper not to ask questions about sources, but can't bind the defense attorney," he said. "On cross-examination … a skillful defense attorney might be able to find some little crack in the door ... and ask the reporter about sources, and then the reporter has no shield law to fall back on."
While Ericson's testimony places Needleman at the scene of Morales' alleged confession, prosecutors have written they want Needleman to testify about his long-standing relationship with his client — including that he confirmed for Morales that Long was working with prosecutors in the theft case.
The law closely guards the relationship between lawyers and their clients. The records unsealed Thursday show that defense lawyers battled to keep Needleman off the witness stand.
They argued that any confession Morales might have made would likely be protected.
"It is anticipated that the prosecution will claim that the evidence is admissible based on an exception to the attorney client privilege or that the privilege was waived," Morales' lawyers wrote in March. "The defense will likely take a contrary provision."
But Judge Roger W. Titus ruled that Morales had waived his privilege because he discussed conversations with his lawyer when he tried to implicate Needleman in the murder plot.
"Like other privileges, the attorney-client privilege does not perpetuate indefinitely in the face of abuse or apathy," Titus wrote.
It will not be the first time that Needleman has been in an odd spot in a federal courtroom: He was at the defense table as a client two years ago, when he was convicted of tax evasion.
Needleman was barred from practicing law after that conviction.
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