San Diego

County Lawyers Demand Research, Notes From Local Journalist

Freelance journalist Kelly Davis’ series on San Diego County jail deaths is the reason she is now at the center of her own story.

“These are all human beings worthy of redemption,” freelance journalist Kelly Davis told NBC 7 Investigates.

Davis is talking about inmates who committed suicide while serving time in San Diego County jail facilities, a focus of hers since 2013 when she published a series of reports on jail deaths for the alternative newsweekly San Diego CityBeat. 

“For the period of 2007 through 2012, San Diego County had the highest mortality rate than any other large county in California,” Davis said. 

Davis and NBC7 Investigates profiled one of those inmates, Kris Nesmith. 

To see our investigation, click here.  

Kris Nesmith was a former Marine who died while in custody at the Vista Jail. Nesmith's widow sued the county, claiming she had warned jail staff about his depression and previous suicide attempts. 

The county asked the lawsuit be dismissed but a Judge in the case refused, stating the county should have been on alert by news reports and anecdotes surrounding jail deaths.

“It is plausible that if the County had reacted to the prior suicide incidents by implementing an appropriate suicide prevention policy or by remedying the alleged custom of indifference, Kris’s suicidal ideations would not have been ignored,” the Judge’s ruling stated. 

The judge also added Davis’ stories had put the county on notice about its “inadequate suicide prevention policies and training" and that her exposé had revealed a “pattern of constitutional violations” by jail personnel. 

After the Judge’s ruling, the county responded by making Davis a party to that lawsuit. 

“I am just wondering if they are trying to intimidate me,” Davis told NBC 7 Investigates, “They wanted me to turn over every bit of research, every email, every notebook, everything I had for jail deaths.” 

In November, county lawyers served Davis a subpoena and filed a Motion to Compel, asking for her notes, research and sources along with a deposition on how she had calculated mortality rates in San Diego County’s jail facilities. 

“I was terrified, I was shaking,” Davis recalled. 

“We are arguing this information is available from other sources,” Davis said, adding the information the county was asking for could easily be obtained without her private notes. 

Hal Fuson, a legal expert not involved in this case, said ordering journalists to testify for either side could have a chilling effect on press freedoms. 

“If people know that anything they tell a reporter could be dragged into court, they are going to have one more reason to not talk to reporters,” Fuson said, “If this continues and becomes a regular fact of life for journalists, there will be important things that they don’t get to know.” 

Davis said she learned that first hand. 

“You want journalists to be free to do their stories and to gather their research, talk to their sources, without worrying that someone is looking over their shoulder,” Davis told NBC 7 Investigates. 

A local attorney, Matthew Halgren took Davis’ case pro-bono and filed an opposition to the county’s motion to compel Davis.  

This past Friday, a Judge ruled Davis will not have to give any information to the county lawyers in this case. 

NBC 7 Investigates asked the county about the case but was told the county, “does not comment on pending litigation.” 

California state courts recognize special protections for journalists who refuse to disclose sources and unpublished information, known as the Reporters' Shield Law but since this case was heard in federal court, those laws do not apply. 

Davis said she is relieved about the ruling and will continue to report and investigate jail deaths in San Diego County.

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