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Originally published March 26, 2010 at 9:24 PM | Page modified March 27, 2010 at 2:20 PM

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WWU professor pulled back into '94 murder trial

In 1994, Carolyn Nielsen was a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism when she wrote stories that questioned the trial and subsequent murder conviction of a 14-year-old Chicago boy.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In 1994, Carolyn Nielsen was a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism when she wrote stories that questioned the trial and subsequent murder conviction of a 14-year-old Chicago boy.

Nothing came of it then. The boy, Thaddeus Jimenez, was sent to prison and Nielsen went on to become an assistant professor of journalism at Western Washington University.

But last year, after 16 years behind bars, Jimenez was exonerated of the crime by a group of lawyers who say Nielsen's reporting spurred their interest in the case. Jimenez, now free, has sued the Chicago Police Department for false arrest, claiming he was framed.

Nielsen was ecstatic at the exoneration, writing in her personal blog at the time that she had stayed in touch with Jimenez and his family over the years, and that Jimenez himself had called to say he was free. "It was the only instance in my journalism career in which I switched from reporter to advocate," she wrote on May 4, 2009.

"More than 14 years later, I still have my original draft, my notes and letters TJ [Jimenez] sent me when I interviewed him via mail," she continued.

That sentence caught the attention of lawyers representing the Chicago police officers being sued by Jimenez. Earlier this month they subpoenaed the documents.

On March 16, Nielsen called one of the officers' lawyers in Chicago and "requested several more weeks to respond to the subpoena," according to court documents.

When the attorney asked Nielsen if she had any relevant documents — not letting on that he had already read her blog — he claimed in a sworn affidavit that she became "very evasive."

The attorney, in a sworn affidavit, said he returned to look at Nielsen's blog and found the sentence had been deleted. The officers' lawyers worried Nielsen might attempt to destroy the notes, so they sought a court order protecting them in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The officers believe the notes or letters may contain material that could help their defense, showing for instance that they had probable cause to investigate or even arrest Jimenez at the time, even if he hadn't committed the crime.

They cite as an example a letter introduced at Jimenez's 1994 trial in which he wrote a girlfriend that he was going to have a friend stop a witness from testifying "in anyway he has to, even if he has to kill him. It won't mean anything to me. And it only takes the pull of a trigger."

The lawyers for the officers hope to find similar documents that could be used to support the arrest of Jimenez.

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Jimenez was 13 when he was arrested and charged with the fatal street shooting of an 18-year-old Chicago man.

Despite evidence that someone else was responsible — including a surreptitiously recorded confession by the killer and the statements of the killer's companion — Jimenez was charged, convicted after two trials and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

The case caught the attention of lawyers from the Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions in 2005. The following year two of the state's key witnesses recanted, including a young man who said police dragged him out of his bed in the middle of the night and interrogated him for hours — he was 14 at the time — until he agreed to say Jimenez was the shooter.

Last May, the Cook County, Ill., State's Attorney's Office filed a motion with Jimenez's lawyers seeking to vacate the conviction. Within hours, another man was taken into custody for the killing.

Jimenez sued the department and six specific officers who were involved in the investigation, alleging that he was framed.

The attorneys in Chicago defending the officers hired Seattle lawyers Anne Bremner and James Lynch, who filed the Seattle lawsuit.

On Thursday, Judge Marsha Pechman issued an order to Nielsen to "preserve all documents responsive to the defendant's subpoena." The judge also ruled that Nielsen has the right to challenge the subpoena.

Eric Stahl, one of Nielsen's attorneys, said Friday that Nielsen intends to fight the subpoena and will claim reporter's privilege regarding the letters and notes.

While there is no federal reporter's shield law, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized that journalists enjoy some protection in revealing sources or notes, particularly if the material can be gathered elsewhere. Stahl has said the Chicago lawyers must show they can't get the material anywhere else before Nielsen can be asked to turn it over.

"It's our opinion that all of this material was gathered in the course of her being a journalist, and that a shield should apply," said Stahl, who works for the firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which represents The Seattle Times.

Nielsen said the whole affair is an overreaction.

In a telephone interview earlier this week, and in filings in U.S. District Court, she acknowledged she has the documents and promises their safekeeping.

"I am not quibbling with the preservation of anything," she said. "I was not evasive ... There were some things I just didn't think it was wise to talk to him about," she said.

Bremner said the whole thing could have been avoided if Nielsen hadn't removed that sentence referring to the notes and letters from her blog.

Nielsen declined to talk specifically about that. Nielsen would not say what is in the documents she has, or whether she will challenge the subpoena, but hinted that she's willing to fight.

"It doesn't matter what is in them," she said. "As a reporter, my notes are my notes."

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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