FARGO - A Forum journalist who covered a deadly fist fight downtown earlier this year had his notes and recordings subpoenaed by Cass County prosecutors and was questioned by a police investigator and a private detective working for the accused.
Archie Ingersoll, who has since been promoted to news editor, was the reporter on duty the night of May 27. After hearing police calls over a scanner concerning a fight about a block from The Forum, he ran outside and said he saw Darren Patterson strike two other men outside the HoDo Restaurant and Lounge. One of the men, Jamie Grant, later died after hitting his head on the pavement, and Patterson has been charged with manslaughter.
On Tuesday, Oct. 24, Ingersoll and The Forum received a subpoena from the Cass County State's Attorney's Office for notes and recordings he used while covering the event. Prosecutors also requested he submit to questioning about what he saw.
Journalists typically tread carefully when it comes to cooperating with the government because they are government watchdogs and want to remain independent. They also fear revealing sources to whom they've promised confidentiality.
But Ingersoll and Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon agreed that the situation they face here doesn't violate these long-held stances.
"We rarely get subpoenaed for information gained while gathering the news," Von Pinnon said in a statement. "Typically, we resist such efforts so the public and our sources confidently know we operate independently. For instance, we may interview people suspected of crimes and they may talk to us instead of talking to the police or prosecutors because we are neutral. We want to maintain that neutrality, that independence."
"But in this unusual case, where a reporter actually witnessed the event, we didn't want to obstruct the fact-finding process, either," he said.
Von Pinnon said The Forum had consulted with longtime media attorney Jack McDonald and Kathleen Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Journalism Ethics.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said he understands if journalists are conducting investigations and have sources they wish to protect, but in Ingersoll's case, there are no such sources. Ingersoll, he said, was simply a witness and attorneys on both sides wanted to talk to him to make sure they didn't miss anything.
Ingersoll had earlier written a first-person story providing a blow-by-blow account of the fight as he saw it, which The Forum published June 10. Photos and edited video he took with his cellphone in the aftermath of the fight were also published earlier in his reporting.
Nevertheless, attorneys and police wanted to know more.
Ingersoll was interviewed for nearly two hours Wednesday, Oct. 25, by prosecutor Ryan Younggren, police Detective Mark Voigtschild, and Chuck Anderson, a private investigator hired by Patterson's defense attorney.
Von Pinnon said The Forum insisted that both the prosecution and defense be present for the same interview to demonstrate the newspaper's independence.
Most of the questions involved clarifying the events depicted in Ingersoll's first-person story, according to Ingersoll. Attorney McDonald was present and interjected when interviewers wanted Ingersoll to speculate or to report what he's learned since his initial reporting.
Ingersoll also provided a dozen computer files, four photos and 6 minutes of video, all taken while emergency responders tended to Grant. The reporter had seen the fight from a block away at The Forum building and didn't start recording until he arrived on the scene. There were also two audio files, one with just background noise and one with an interview with police Sgt. Mike Sanden.
Asked if Ingersoll would ever be called to testify, Younggren said that's possible, though most cases are settled before going to trial.
Ingersoll said it's unusual for reporters to share notes or submit to police questioning because "we aren't their investigative arm." But he said his situation is unique because he was a witness to an incident on a public street rather than acting as an investigative reporter with sources to protect.
This is not the first time Ingersoll has been subpoenaed. In 2010, while working for the Grand Forks Herald, he interviewed Rodney Chisholm in jail. The Manvel man admitted to Ingersoll he had killed his brother Donald but claimed self-defense, the same thing he told investigators. But prosecutors subpoenaed Ingersoll, presumably to gather information, though they ultimately didn't interview him.
Burdick said his office has never asked a journalist to submit to questioning in his 20-year career. But Younggren said he has subpoenaed journalists before to obtain photos or videos because journalists are occasionally on the scene before law enforcement and may be the only ones there with recording equipment.