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SHIELD LAW: Local newspaper releases interview notes at the order of 5th District Court of Appeal

Jailhouse interview notes released to Kern County Public Defender after Nov. 7 decision by 5th District Court of Appeal
The Bakersfield Californian
Sebastian Parra in court
Sabastian Parra jailhouse interview notes
Posted at 6:51 PM, Nov 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-17 13:29:51-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — The Bakersfield Californian has released previously unpublished notes from a jailhouse interview with a criminal defendant after an order from the 5th District Court of Appeal.

The notes were from a jailhouse interview with Sebastian Parra who is charged alongside Robert Pernell Roberts in the alleged shooting death of Benny Alcala junior in August of last year in southwest Bakersfield.

The notes were requested in court earlier this year by Deputy Public Defender Lexi Blythe after she read an article regarding an interview conducted by the former Bakersfield Californian reporter Ishani Desai.

Desai is now a reporter for The Sacramento Bee and Blythe is no longer with the Kern County Public Defender's Office.

In May, The Bakersfield Californian was held in contempt of courtafter they refused to release the notes earlier this year.

The Californian's attorney Thomas Burke argued the move would go against California's Shield Law -- which protects journalists from being compelled to reveal their sources or provide unpublished material.

On November 7th, the 5th District Court of Appeal ultimately ordered the Californian to release the notes, according to The Bakersfield Californian.

We spoke to Christine L. Peterson, the executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian who believes the notes will not help the public defender's case.

"We believe there was nothing in the notes that would be of material assistance to the defense," said Peterson.

Peterson went on to say that they fought back on the decision because The Bakersfield Californian believes in the First Amendment and the importance of California's Shield Law.

"The Bakersfield Californian took up this fight because we believe in the First Amendment and we believe in the importance of the California Shield law. This case was about The Bakersfield Californian. But It's not just about us, it is about protecting newsgathering abilities throughout the state of California," Peterson Said.

Desai said that she and The Bakersfield Californian fought against the subpoenas for two reasons.

"The first one: I strongly believe in doing everything and anything to protect my relationship with sources, Desai said. "The second: Journalists are not, and will never be, the arm of a powerful government agency, one such as the Kern County Public Defender's Office."

Blythe said in a statement:

"Mr. Roberts is not guilty of the crimes he is charged with in his case. Sebastian Parra, the now-codefendant, has falsely accused Mr. Roberts of committing these crimes. Mr. Parra has proven himself to be a liar, and he committed perjury at the preliminary hearing when he testified as a witness for the prosecution.

"Mr. Parra has a firearm and ammunition that matches what was located at the scene of the crime, yet at the preliminary hearing, he lied and stated that his firearm was with a friend and not present on the night of the incident. His friend, who was named, testified at the preliminary hearing and unequivocally denied having Mr. Parra’s firearm or even knowing he had one.

"After the preliminary hearing, Mr. Parra admitted that his firearm actually was at the scene—a topic that was the predominate focus of the interview with The Bakersfield Californian. Mr. Parra has lied about numerous other details as well. The prosecution’s case centers on Mr. Parra’s initial statements, so his lack of credibility is highly relevant for Mr. Roberts’ defense.

"The notes that were turned over by The Bakersfield Californian are extremely helpful for Mr. Roberts’ case and will materially assist him at trial.

"These statements are made solely in my capacity as Mr. Robert’s former attorney."

***A previous version of this story had incorrectly named the 5th District Court of Appeal and Desai's current place of employment.***

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