Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters were ordered jailed on Thursday, pending an appeal, for refusing to testify about who leaked secret grand jury testimony from Barry Bonds and other athletes.
Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada published a series of articles and a book based partly on the leaked transcripts of the testimony of Bonds, Jason Giambi and others before a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO).
Federal prosecutors asked US District Judge Jeffrey White to send the reporters to prison for 18 months -- the length of a typical grand jury term -- or until they agree to testify before the grand jury investigating the leaks.
If the reporters refuse to cooperate, they could remain in prison until the current grand jury expires, which could happen as late as October next year, according to court documents. The government also could convene another grand jury if the first one expires without a resolution.
Both sides agreed to stay the ruling pending an appeal to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The court is hopeful that perhaps they'll reconsider their position when faced with the reality of incarceration," White said.
Williams and Fainaru-Wada have said repeatedly they would go to jail rather than comply with the grand jury's subpoena and reveal their source or sources.
"I'm supposed to keep my promises when people help me and take me at my word," Williams said in court. "I do despair for our country if we go very far down this road, because no one will talk to reporters."
The reporters agreed with the government that they are in contempt of court, but had sought a "nominal monetary fine" and other punishment "short of full-blown incarceration," including house arrest and weekend jailing, according to court documents.
In arguing for the stiff penalty, the federal prosecutors cited the reporters' own statements that they would go to jail before testifying.
"Only imprisonment would be the type of sanction that's going to get their attention," said Assistant US Attorney Douglas Miller.
Authorities are seeking to prosecute whoever unlawfully leaked the transcripts and told White the reporters are the only ones who know the identity of their sources.
White ordered the two to testify on Aug. 15.
The criminal conduct being investigated in the Bonds leak case includes possible perjury and obstruction of justice.