Once again, authorities out of control but they've finally come to their senses. That sheriff needs investigating.
Amid uproar, county attorney drops charges against 'New Times'
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 20, 2007 12:00 AM
A criminal case against Phoenix New Times fell apart Friday amid a crush of public outrage and admissions that a special county prosecutor made serious mistakes.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas dismissed all charges against the free weekly newspaper less than 24 hours after two New Times owners were arrested for publishing details of a grand-jury subpoena that demanded the Internet records of any person who had visited the newspaper's Web site since 2004.
Thomas' announcement came just hours after the State Bar Association confirmed that it had received multiple complaints and had launched an internal investigation into Thomas and special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik for their actions in the New Times case and an unrelated one.
Thomas, who looked contrite and atypically uncomfortable as he faced cameras in a news conference, said he had no prior knowledge of the arrests or the demands set forth in the subpoena that his office sought.
"It has become clear to me that this investigation has gone in a direction that I would not have authorized," Thomas said, adding that he holds the First Amendment in great esteem and that it needs to be upheld.
"There have been serious missteps in this matter," he said. "I am announcing that Mr. Wilenchik will no longer serve as special prosecutor."
The mea culpa was a gigantic victory for New Times, which for three years has battled the County Attorney's Office over charges that reporters and editors broke the law when they published online the home address of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
"This really is a win for the Constitution," said Michael Lacey, executive editor of Village Voice Media, which owns Phoenix New Times and several other papers across the country. He also said it was a victory for readers, who won "the right to read whatever they want without government interference."
On Thursday night, Lacey and New Times owner Jim Larkin were arrested on charges that they broke the law by publishing details of the subpoena in Thursday's paper.
Lacey and Larkin acknowledged in their cover story that they risked prosecution but said the issues were too important to keep from the public.
The two said the subpoena was part of an investigation orchestrated to get back at reporters and the critical stories they wrote about Arpaio, Thomas' political ally.
Public backlash over the arrests and the subpoena was immediate and overwhelming Friday, with conservatives and liberals saying Thomas had made an assault on free speech.
"There is only one place for friends of freedom to stand at this moment: shoulder to shoulder with the New Times," the conservative Goldwater Institute wrote in defense of the alternative newspaper.
The case, which has cost taxpayers undisclosed thousands of dollars, dragged on for years. It started when New Times launched an investigation of Arpaio's real-estate holdings in 2004.