Lawyers Want Unpublished Photos Of Dead Football Player's Collapse

Mar 28, 2006

 In July 2005, photojournalist Jenna Isaacson of the Columbia Daily Tribune was on a routine daily assignment covering a summer strength-and-conditioning workout session for members of the University of Missouri-Columbia football team. The voluntary training session was scheduled to last an hour, and while it was strenuous it was not held in extreme heat. Isaacson photographed as many players as possible, building up the newspaper’s preseason image archive. As she documented the routines, she noticed and took pictures of one player in particular who was struggling with the drills. As the workout progressed the football player – redshirt freshman Aaron O’Neal, 19 – collapsed and was helped from the field. Hours later he died at University Hospital on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia.

That night the newspaper published a Web gallery of 18 of Isaacson’s images of O’Neal working out, collapsing, and being helped from the field, alongside the newspaper’s stories about his death. Isaacson’s primary images were also published on the front page of the next day’s newspaper along with several follow-up news stories. Some members of the community were outraged at the newspaper for publishing the images, but editors stood by their decision to publish and explained to readers why it was important for them to see what Isaacson had witnessed.

Now a lawyer representing O’Neal’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against members of the university’s athletic department and football staff wants 622 of Isaacson’s unpublished images released, telling the court that he believes access to the unpublished photographs will help prove his contention that the university’s staff contributed to O’Neal’s death.

In late August the Boone County medical examiner, Valerie Rao, announced that O’Neal died as the result of viral meningitis. On the same day as Rao’s announcement the player’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.”

Rao told reporters at the time that it was unclear whether participating in the voluntary summer workout contributed to O’Neal’s death or not. The Tribune quoted Rao as saying, “I don’t think it helped him.”

A lawyer for the O’Neal family, Chris Bauman, filed a motion Monday in Boone County Circuit Court asking the judge to order Isaacson to obey a subpoena and turn over 622 photographs from the workout, according to the Tribune. The newspaper also reports that in the motion and an accompanying legal brief, Bauman and attorneys Bob Blitz and Scott Rosenblum of St. Louis contend that the State of Missouri “lacks any statutory privilege for reporters’ work products.” In other words, the unpublished photographs or reporters’ notes are not protected from discovery by any press shield law.

So far the Tribune has not complied with the subpoena. A lawyer representing the newspaper – Jean Maneke of the Missouri Press Association – said the Tribune had already agreed to share the 18 published photographs and offered to allow Isaacson to testify about what she personally saw at the workout.

“I think we've known for a long time that the photos would probably be sought after for the civil suit, so what's happening now really isn't surprising,” Isaacson told News Photographer magazine today. “What is really frustrating to me is that even though Missouri is home to a world-famous journalism school, we are in the minority in this country as a state without a journalist shield law. It concerns me that this decision could open up our newsroom staff to becoming tools of the court system and the notes, photographs, and communications we use in our profession can now possibly be turned into evidence. How might the public in general react to us as photographers knowing the photos we produce from that interaction might somehow end up as part of a legal battle?”

Looking at the courtroom battle over the images, and the community’s reaction to the photographs when O’Neal died, Isaacson reflected today, “It definitely speaks to the power of the still photograph.” She's been an NPPA member since March 2000.

In an article by Tribune reporter Matthew LeBlanc, attorney Bauman is quoted as saying, “What happened on that day is obviously central to the case. She (Isaacson) was there and was the only photojournalist to photograph what happened on the field.” The Tribune’s story says that some of the photographs show O’Neal collapsing and being taken off the field. Bauman contends that what might be seen in the unpublished images might help to determine whether athletic trainers on the field may have contributed to the athlete’s death, according to the story.

Maneke, the lawyer defending the Tribune, also said in the newspaper that Bauman’s request for the photographs to be released has “overstepped legal boundaries.” Maneke says Missouri law requires that a reporter or photographer must first refuse in a deposition to give up notes or pictures before a motion can be filed to mandate their release. “Because the newspaper so far has not refused to turn over the photos in a sworn statement, the motion to compel is premature.”

The Tribune reports that the judge has asked for more information on the legal issue from the lawyers and will rule on the matter later, possibly as early as this week. Isaacson is scheduled to give a deposition in the case in St. Louis next week, the newspaper said.