The Karen Read Story Continues: Judge Keeps ‘Off the Record’ Interview Confidential

In the high-profile Massachusetts murder case, a recent court ruling favors press freedoms across the state.

The October 2023 feature spread.

Boston magazine recently scored a significant court victory for free press in Massachusetts after a judge ruled that the publication doesn’t have to turn over confidential interview notes to the government. The ruling is a welcome development for the press in the Commonwealth, one of just ten states in the country that doesn’t have a so-called “shield law” to protect reporters from being compelled in court to turn over information from—and the identity of—their sources.

Earlier this month, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey asked Norfolk Superior Court Judge Beverly Cannone to order Boston contributing writer Gretchen Voss to turn over notes and recordings from three interviews she conducted with Karen Read—the Mansfield defendant accused of murdering her boyfriend, Boston Police officer John O’Keefe—for a 6,500-word reported feature published in Boston’s October 2023 issue. In the mega-high-profile case, Read has pled not guilty and alleges that a vast conspiracy involving the District Attorney’s office and law enforcement agencies has framed her to protect the real murderers.

Boston agreed to turn over the notes and recordings from Voss’s two on-the-record interviews with Read but fought to protect the handwritten notes from one off-the-record Read interview Voss conducted in July 2023. At a hearing in a Dedham courthouse last week, Boston’s attorney, Robert Bertsche of Klaris Law, argued that compelling Voss to turn over her off-the-record notes would threaten journalistic independence and constitute a judicial intrusion into the constitutionally protected role of the media. As he wrote to the court: “The public relies on the ability of news reporters to learn newsworthy information that enables it to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. To do so, it is imperative that news reporters make and keep promises of confidentiality to sources, whether that be in relation to those source’s identities or that certain of their statements be kept ‘off the record.’”

Meanwhile, Norfolk Assistant District Attorney Adam Lally argued that there was “no journalistic privilege in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” and the implication that ordering Voss to turn over her notes would have a chilling effect on media freedom was “speculative.”

On Tuesday, Judge Cannone sided with Boston, marking one of very few occasions when Massachusetts courts have ruled for a journalist in a criminal case involving the reporter’s privilege. (The ruling came just a week after a bill called the PRESS Act, proposing a privilege on a federal level, was introduced in the U.S. Congress.)

The ruling is a recognition that allowing the government to order a reporter to disclose off-the-record statements made to her by a criminal defendant would be detrimental to press freedom. The ruling also implies that Judge Cannone determined that, in this instance, compelling the reporter to turn over her notes would do more to inhibit the free flow of information to the public than it would to aid the court’s ability to administer justice.

A potentially significant factor in the judge’s ruling was that, since reporting on this controversial case, Voss has endured harassment in-person and online, “the likes of which I have never before experienced in my over 25 years in journalism,” Voss told the court in an affidavit. In addition, Voss wrote in her affidavit, if the judge ordered Voss to comply with the District Attorney’s request—and potentially be called to testify to provide explanations and context for her handwritten notes—she would be back in the spotlight and undoubtably be put further at risk.

Boston attorney Bertsche applauded the judge’s ruling. “It illustrates that even in a state that does not expressly recognize a reporter’s privilege not to disclose unpublished information obtained during the newsgathering process, a reporter is not without protections,” he said. “The ruling is a victory for the rights of a free press in Massachusetts.”

Previously: “The Karen Read Case in Canton: The Killing That Tore a Town Apart”