editor Joseph Hosey has been hit with steep fines and potential jail time for refusing to reveal his source for police records in a sensational murder case. (Photo by Janet Hosey)

CHICAGO, IL — The account of a 2013 double murder, dubbed the “Nightmare on Hickory Street,” sounds like a plot out of a horror flick. 

Two strangled victims. A plan to dismember the bodies with a saw and blow torch. An alleged sex act on top of the corpses. And talk of skinning one victim and wearing his face like “Leatherface.”

Since last week, these gruesome details have been emerging out of the murder trial of one of the four accused killers, grabbing front-page headlines and leading newscasts all around Chicago.

But most of this is old news to readers of Joseph Hosey, a editor who covers Chicago’s southwest suburbs, including Joliet, where the murders took place. Early last year, Hosey scooped his competitors by being the first to get hold of police reports detailing the killings and writing a series of articles about them.

The scoop came at a considerable cost, though: Hosey is now facing the possibility of crippling fines and jail time, and finds himself at the center of a legal dispute that pits the principles of press freedom and open government against the rights of criminal defendants. At its core is a key question: How much protection do state shield laws offer to journalists and their confidential sources? 

Hosey’s trouble began shortly after his articles were published in February 2013. Lawyers for Bethany McKee, one of the defendants, arguing that her fair-trial rights had been violated, sought to identify Hosey’s source for the reports. Their efforts led the court to collect sworn affidavits from more than 500 police officials, courthouse workers, and attorneys—all of whom denied leaking the documents.

Eventually, in September, Judge Gerald R. Kinney ordered Hosey to reveal the source, ruling that the protections under the state’s shield law were not applicable. When Hosey refused, Kinney slapped him with a contempt charge and imposed a one-time fine of $1,000, plus $300 for each day Hosey refuses to reveal his source. After 180 days, an indefinite jail sentence will kick in. (Kinney’s order has been stayed for the duration of Hosey’s appeal, which is now pending before the Illinois Appellate Court, and Hosey is still racking up bylines, including coverage of the Hickory Street murder trial.) 

Hosey declined to comment for this story. But an array of media organizations have stepped in to lend their support. David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, slammed Kinney’s decision, calling it “a witch hunt to find the leaker,” and warned against its chilling effect.

“All of this directly affects how journalists do their jobs,” Cuillier told me. “We need to ensure that journalists don’t have to go to jail to protect the flow of information and to protect the ability of people to come forward with the information that’s important.”

In March, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 38 other media organizations, filed an amicus brief at the appeals court on Hosey’s behalf. “Anytime a journalist is threatened with a contempt citation for not cooperating with a court, it’s important that we go to the court and explain why these matters are important to journalists,” says Gregg Leslie, the Reporters Committee’s legal defense director. 

Leslie also notes that, while it’s cold comfort for Hosey, the silver lining may be that cases like his—in which a reporter gets into a high-stakes dispute over the validity of a subpoena—come up but a handful times each year. “The fact that it only happens so rarely might be a good indication that the courts know not to tolerate subpoenas to journalists,” he says. “And maybe there are a lot of lawyers out there who don’t even try because they know that it’ll be quite a fight and they often lose.”

A backlash, and renewed interest in a federal shield law

Of course, Hosey’s legal fight is also playing out at a time when subpoenas served to journalists are very much in the news.

In June, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times. At issue was a dispute over whether he should be forced to identify his source for a chapter in his 2006 book, State of War, that described the CIA’s bungled attempt at monitoring Iran’s nuclear program.

Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.