No Court Decision On Request For Unpublished Photos In Football Player's Death

Apr 25, 2006

COLUMBIA, MO – No decision was reached today in a Boone County Circuit Court about whether The Columbia Tribune will be required to turn over 622 unpublished photographs by Jenna Isaacson of a University of Missouri strength-and-conditioning football training session where a 19-year-old player struggled, collapsed, and then later died.

Today’s hearing was the third time in two months that lawyers for the family of deceased freshman redshirt football player Aaron O’Neal have asked the court to order the Tribune to release the images.

Isaacson could not be reached for comment after the hearing. She was scheduled to be enroute from Missouri to Kashmir today where she plans to be a participant in a VII Photo Agency workshop led by Gary Knight. Plans for her trip had been made four months ago, long before today’s hearing date was set.

In late March, Boone County Circuit Court Judge Gary Oxenhandler ruled that, by law, Isaacson first had to refuse to turn over the photographs during a sworn deposition before the court had the legal standing to compel the release of the images. Isaacson did that during a deposition on April 3, and then today’s court hearing was scheduled. The newspaper says that during the deposition Isaacson told lawyers that the University allowed her to photograph the workout for the newspaper and for no other purposes.

The Tribune reports that today in court lawyers argued over whether the University of Missouri wanted the photographs of the workout to remain confidential, or whether the act of inviting a newspaper photographer and reporters to the practice session implied the University did not expect the pictures to be kept private. The attorney representing the newspaper argued that inviting a photographer to a “private” practice implied a confidentiality agreement for the unpublished photographs.

One of the biggest problems lawyers for the Tribune face in the O’Neal case is the fact that Missouri has no shield law to protect reporters and photographers from court requests for documents, including reporters’ notes and unpublished photographs. Chris Bauman, an attorney for the O’Neal family, is quoted in the Tribune as saying in court today, “The law has not changed since our first hearing. There is no statutory privilege for reporters.”

After today’s hearing Jean Maneke, a Missouri Press Association attorney representing the newspaper, argued that the newspaper’s reluctance to turn over the unpublished photographs is “a matter of principle” that protects journalists from becoming “an arm of the government and the judicial system.”

Isaacson photographed O’Neal and other football players for the Tribune in July 2005 as they took part in a voluntary one-hour workout. The photographer noticed O’Neal struggling as the session progressed and photographed him as he collapsed and was then helped from the field. Hours later he died at University Hospital on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia.

In late August 2005 the Boone County medical examiner ruled that O’Neal died as the result of viral meningitis. Valerie Rao would not directly say whether the workout session contributed to O’Neal’s death, but about the physical activity she did tell reporters, “I don’t think it helped him.”

The same day of the medical examiner’s ruling O’Neal’s father, Lonnie O’Neal, filed a $300,000 wrongful death lawsuit naming members of MU’s athletic training staff, the strength and conditioning staff, athletic director Mike Alden, head football coach Gary Pinkel, and director of football operations Mark Alnutt, but not the university. The suit alleges that O’Neal died as a result of “neglect” by university staff and that “university officials were callous and fell far short of any reasonable standard.”

Bauman has told the court that he believes access to Isaacson’s unpublished photographs will help prove his contention that the university’s staff somehow contributed to O’Neal’s death.

The night O’Neal collapsed and died the Tribune published a Web gallery of 18 of Isaacson’s images of him working out, collapsing, and being helped from the field. The images were published alongside the newspaper’s Web site stories about O’Neal’s death. Isaacson’s primary images from the selection of 18 pictures were also published on the front page of the next day’s newspaper packaged with several follow-up news stories.