The saga of Sam Krasniqi, an Albanian Moslem who was acquitted of molesting his son and daughter but was nonetheless unable to regain custody of his children anyway ("Tell Mama Why You Cry," Nov. 17, 1994), took a strange turn last week when Krasniqi was indicted on three counts of felony retaliation for comments he made to a Dallas Morning News reporter.
In a Nov. 29 Morning News story chronicling the saga of Krasniqi and his wife Kathy, who lost custody of their children five and a half years ago, Krasniqi expresses frustration at the legal system and bitterness at witnesses who testified against him.
At the very end of the lengthy story that details how the children were adopted by another family last year and converted to Christianity, Krasniqi told the Morning News that if he ever saw one particular unnamed witness again, he would kill her. He also said, "If I had known it would be like this, I would be dead a long time ago, but a lot of people would go with me."
In the next breath, Krasniqi added: "It would be wrong to hurt somebody."
Last week, after Krasniqi had turned himself in to authorities and been released on bond, he told the Observer, "I don't meant nothing by what I said. I never say any names. I never threatened anybody. I'm not that kind of stupid jerk. I just meant if they came to my house again, I would kill someone rather than let them take my children again."
Khalid Hamideh, one of Krasniqi's attorneys, called the charges "ludicrous" and "selective enforcement" of the law. "It's scary to think we still live in a society that could send someone to jail for 30 years for blowing off steam in an interview with The Dallas Morning News," he said.
Dallas County prosecutor Cecil Emerson sees it differently: "If I were a woman at home rearing children, and not hardened to the way people talk, I might not take it as blowing off steam, but might think they might really do something to me."
Emerson says the statements in the News were the basis for the indictment under a law that he admits is rarely used. According to the Texas Penal Code, a person commits a felony when "they harm or threaten to harm by an unlawful act" a person in retaliation for, among other things, testifying as a witness against them. It is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. "The statute encourages people to report crimes without fear of retaliation," says Emerson.
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Lawyers and reporters who have chronicled the Krasniqi story, which has become an international cause celebre since it first appeared on ABC-TV's "20/20" last August, say this recent turn of events is particularly upsetting.
"It's chilling to be indicted off something so clearly ambiguous in print," says Jim Schutze, Dallas bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle, who has written several stories about the Krasniqis. "It comes down to intent. When Sam Krasniqi made those remarks to [News] reporter Sherry Jacobson, did he intend them as threats or were they an expression of frustration? If I was the reporter, I would have tried to find out. It's not clear she did. If the Morning News thought Krasniqi was serious, why did they put it at the end of the story? It seems to me that would have been the story--and the headline."
Reporter Sherry Jacobson would not comment about her story. "The story speaks for itself," said Jacobson, who testified in front of the grand jury that indicted Krasniqi. She referred questions to executive editor Ralph Langer, who refused to talk to the Observer.
Attorney Paul Watler, president-elect of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, also refused to comment about the story or its implications for freedom of speech or the press, citing his role as private legal counsel for the Morning News. "I'm not going to mix up these two roles," he said. "My involvement in this case is not associated with the Freedom of Information Foundation." Watler also referred the Observer to Langer. "I'm sure he'll be glad to comment," Watler said.