Conrado Juárez, 52, is arraigned at Manhattan Criminal Court for the alleged murder of four-year-old Anjelica Castillo, nicknamed "Baby Hope," Saturday, October 12, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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On July 23 1991, construction workers near the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan found an Igloo cooler with the partially decomposed remains of a toddler-aged girl inside. According to the chief NYC medical examiner, the cause of death was asphyxia, and further testing revealed that the young girl had semen in her rectum when she died.

No one reported the girl missing, and for over two decades, police had no real leads.

But in 2013, NYPD detectives finally received a solid tip about the girl whom the police had taken to calling "Baby Hope." Officers soon arrested Conrado Juárez, then 52 and a cousin of the murdered girl, in connection with the crime. After a marathon interrogation, he confessed to sexually assaulting the toddler and smothering her—a confession Juárez's attorney says was coerced and unlawful because his client was denied a lawyer after requesting one.

A few days after Juárez was arraigned in court, he gave an interview to a New York Times reporter. He told the journalist, Francis Robles, that he was pressured into confessing, and that even though he did help dispose of the young girl's body with another relative, he did not kill her. Now the Manhattan District Attorney's office wants Robles to take the stand and testify about her conversation with Juárez—and turn over any notes she might have, testing New York's shield law that protects reporters from betraying their sources.

The prosecution insists Robles's testimony and notes are "critical" and "necessary" to the case—and thus meet the legal threshold to pierce the shield law, even though Juárez did not confess to her. His lawyer, meanwhile, says the DA is calling on Robles simply to prop up a weak case. The government, defense attorney Michael Croce says, is just "shinning up a pile of crap." An appellate court may rule as soon as this week on whether Robles has to testify—a decision that could have a chilling effect for reporters covering the criminal justice system in America.

Baby Hope's real name is Anjelica Castillo, and according to the man accused of killing her, her life was as bitter as it was short. She and her sister, Maribel, were given over to their father—Juárez's uncle—after he and their mother split. The father was unwilling to actually raise the girls, Juárez said, and showed up unannounced at the Astoria apartment of the defendant's sister Balvina Juárez Ramírez. A lamp factory employee in her 40s with no children of her own, Ramírez took the girls in, and no one in the family heard from the father again.

According to court documents and Juárez, Ramírez's apartment was a hub for undocumented family members working low-wage jobs throughout the five boroughs. Uncles and cousins came and went, and children were dropped off and then gathered again after graveyard shifts were completed. Juárez would spend the night there on the occasions he had to be at his nearby job early the next day.

The tip received by police centered on a woman who had a conversation with Baby Hope's sister and led to a series of interviews with family members—and then Juárez.

After he was arrested in October 2013, two cops interrogated him with a Spanish-speaking detective serving as an interpreter. Initially, cops said, Juárez waived his right to silence and a lawyer, and no recording was made. Eventually, Melissa Mourges, the head of the cold case unit for the DA's office and current prosecutor for the case, joined the officers, and a camera was turned on. As James C. McKinley Jr.—who saw the videotaped confession in court—reported for the Times, Juárez "seemed confused. He initially said he did not want to talk, but then when he was shown the waiver to his right to silence he had signed earlier in the morning, he agreed to answer questions."

Signing a waiver does not mean a suspect can't later ask for lawyer and be given one, according to Croce, Juárez's attorney. "The question that needs to be asked is when was he asked to sign that page and under what circumstances," he said. "None of that is recorded.

Three days later, Juárez gave Francis Robles an interview in a Rikers Island visiting room. As is often the case in such settings, the reporter was not allowed to bring a pen or paper with her. In her story, "Suspect Recalls the Short Life of Baby Hope," Robles wrote that Juárez "spoke at length about the little girl and the dysfunctional family in which she was lost. He denied killing her—saying detectives coerced a false confession —but admitted helping dispose of her body."

Juárez told Robles that in 1991 he received a call from Balvina—on his cellphone, which as Robles pointed out is hard to fathom the man having at that time. Anjelica had fallen down the stairs and died, Juarez said, and he claimed to have helped Balvina get rid of the girl's body by using the cooler.

The suspect also denied ever having molested Anjelica and told Robles that the semen found in her body likely came from one of the other men staying in the apartment.

"I was afraid," Juárez told Robles. "My mind closed. Thinking about it now, I realize I should have called the police."

Now Robles's article, her interview, and her subsequent notes are being subpoenaed by Mourges. Given that there is no DNA or forensic evidence of any kind linking Juárez to the crime, prosecutors argue in court papers, "The confession is key to the case; defendant cannot be convicted absent a finding that the statements to police and prosecutors were both voluntary and true, and Robles' testimony is highly relevant and material as well as critical or necessary to that issue."

A district judge, Justice Bonnie G. Wittner, bought that argument in February, saying, "The only other evidence in this case is the defendant's statements to civilians… I believe the testimony that Ms. Robles could give in this court on the statements made by the defendant days after his arraignment is critical."

According to New York shield law, journalists cannot be compelled to testify or provide information about news obtained by confidential sources. However, the law only provides limited protection to named sources like Juárez, and if the reporting is found to be "critical" and "necessary," it can be admitted into court.

In their appellate brief, Robles's lawyers argue that the role of a reporter is not to ease the "heavy burden" of the prosecution by providing corroborating evidence. "Reporters are not agents of the state," the brief says. "They are independent actors who serve as a check on government. The reporter's privilege exists to maintain that independence and to promote the free flow of information to the public."

If the threshold standard of the shield law is lowered to include corroborating evidence, it would set a disturbing precedent, according to Caitlin Vogus, a fellow at the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press. "In order for the public to really know about important matters that are happening, to know about what's going on in criminal investigations and criminal trials, it's essential that the news media be able to gather the news in confidence and that sources trust reporters," she told me.

A request for comment from the Manhattan District Attorney's office went unanswered. Juárez's criminal trial is expected to begin later this fall.

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