Pubdate: Sat, 25 Jun 2005
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Asheville Citizen-Times
Author: Clarke Morrison


Case Referred To Buncombe County District Attorney

Federal prosecutors Friday reviewed a court transcript in which a 
WLOS-TV reporter describes prodding a source to smoke marijuana for a 
news story and referred the case to the Buncombe County district 
attorney. Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards said he sent the 
case to Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore's office "for 
them to handle in whatever manner they deem appropriate."

In a WLOS report about the use of marijuana for medical purposes, 
Steven William Ward was seen rolling a joint and puffing on it. Ward, 
at the time of the June 8 broadcast, was awaiting sentencing in 
federal court for threatening to kill a judge.

His probation officer saw the footage, resulting in a hearing Tuesday 
in which U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell revoked Ward's probation 
and sent him to prison. The judge found that Ward had violated the 
terms of his probation by using drugs.

WLOS reporter Charu Kumarhia was subpoenaed to testify at the bond 
revocation hearing. According to a transcript of the hearing obtained 
by the Citizen-Times, Kumarhia testified that Ward, who suffers from 
multiple sclerosis, contacted the station to talk about the issue of 
medical marijuana, and she arranged to meet him at his residence for 
an interview. Under questioning by Edwards, Kumarhia described the 
interview that took place as a WLOS photographer looked on: "We 
interviewed Mr. Ward, and we asked him - I asked him, 'Do you smoke 
marijuana?' And he said, 'Very rarely, but on occasion.' And I said, 
'Would you smoke that for this story? We are doing a story about 
marijuana use.' And I said, 'Look, if it worries you a little bit, 
you know, I understand. That's fine. We can use file video from CNN 
or ABC, the network.' And he said, 'Well, let me see what I can do.' 
He made a phone call, then asked us to leave." Kumarhia testified 
that she left and returned about an hour and a half later. Ward then 
poured out of a medicine bottle what appeared to her to be brown 
leaves, rolled them into a cigarette and took one or two puffs as the 
camera rolled.

The television station referred comment to its attorney, who said 
Friday that the station had done nothing wrong.

Probation officer Eric Simpson testified that after the segment 
aired, Ward said he took two puffs of marijuana but didn't inhale. 
But in a later interview Ward denied the substance was marijuana, as 
he did on the stand during Tuesday's hearing. Simpson also said a 
drug test performed on Ward turned up negative.

In closing arguments to the judge, Edwards called the claim the 
substance wasn't marijuana "just incredible" and said a drug test 
could easily come back negative if only one or two puffs were taken.

Defense attorney Charles Brewer said his client didn't intend to 
flaunt the court's order that he not use illegal drugs while on 
probation. "And the evidence is clear from the government's own 
testimony that the idea of him doing this was not his. The idea came 
from them (WLOS)," Brewer said. "They told him that that would be a 
desirable thing from the standpoint of running that story."

In issuing his ruling, Judge Howell said he had no doubt Ward 
obtained a controlled substance and used it.

Gary Rowe, an attorney representing WLOS, attended the bond 
revocation hearing. He said Friday that Kumarhia and the television 
station acted properly. "I clearly think she didn't do anything 
wrong," said Rowe, who also represents the Citizen-Times in some 
cases. "I don't think (Kumarhia) crossed the line. I don't think she 
was a participant in that conduct. "WLOS if anything was a bystander 
in what was going on here. And I think that Mr. Ward knew exactly 
what he was doing. And, if anything, he orchestrated what was done."

Edwards told Howell at the hearing: "I don't know where the 
intersection is between criminal law and the First Amendment, but I'd 
be surprised if the fact that you're carrying a TV camera immunizes 
you from consequences for procuring or inducing the commission of a crime."

Moore could not be reached Friday. Bob Steele, journalism values 
scholar for the nonprofit Florida-based journalism think tank Poynter 
Institute, said he couldn't comment specifically on the case but 
offered some general guidelines. "Journalists should observe and 
report on events and issues," he said. "Journalists should ask 
questions and describe scenes. Journalists should not change the 
activity of an event, nor the actions of an individual. "Journalists 
should not ask individuals to do things in the process of reporting a 
story or conducting interviews. This would be particularly true if 
there's any question of ethical or legal behavior on the part of 
someone we are interviewing or observing or photographing."
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