The top prosecutor in Marion County, Kan., said on Wednesday that there was not sufficient evidence to support a raid on a local newspaper last week, and that all the devices and materials obtained in the search would be returned.
Joel Ensey, the Marion County attorney, said in a statement that, in light of the insufficient evidence, he directed local law enforcement to return the seized material.
Police officers and county sheriff’s deputies searched the newspaper’s office, the home of its owner and editor and the home of a city councilwoman on Friday — collecting computers, cellphones and other materials. It is extremely rare for law enforcement authorities in the United States to search and seize the tools to produce journalism.
The searches were part of an investigation into how The Marion County Record obtained and handled a document containing information about a local restaurateur — and whether the restaurant owner’s privacy was violated in the process. The episode threw a national spotlight on Marion, a town of about 2,000 people located an hour north of Wichita.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, an agency that aids law enforcement statewide, said in a statement that the investigation would continue.
The search generated blowback from First Amendment experts, who condemned the raid and urged local law enforcement officials to return the journalists’ equipment. On Sunday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to the Marion Police Department expressing concern that the raid violated federal law. The letter was signed by more than 30 newsrooms, including The New York Times, and press advocacy organizations.
Joan Meyer, a co-owner of the paper, died on Saturday, the day after the raid on the home she lived in with her son, Eric Meyer, the newspaper’s publisher. Mr. Meyer said she was in shock after the raid, adding that she had trouble sleeping. Ms. Meyer, 98, refused food, and kept asking Mr. Meyer whether anyone would put an end to the clash with the authorities. She died midsentence.
Mr. Meyer said the coroner had concluded that the stress of the searches was a contributing factor in her death.
The Marion police chief defended the raid on Saturday, saying that “when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated.” He declined to comment on Wednesday.
Mr. Ensey, the county attorney, was in court Wednesday and not available to comment.
The search of the newspaper’s office came less than a week after Kari Newell, a local restaurant owner, accused The Record of illegally obtaining a government record about steps to restore her driver’s license and then sharing it with a city councilwoman.
Mr. Meyer has said since the raid that he and his newspaper, which did not publish anything about the document it obtained, had done nothing wrong and that the newspaper did not share the document with the councilwoman.
Mr. Meyer, 69, has had a long career in journalism, working as a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a professor at the University of Illinois. The Record, which has seven employees and a circulation of about 4,000, is known for its fiery editorials about local officials and uncommonly aggressive reporting for a paper of its size. But it is also a small-town paper with small-town concerns: Last week’s top story was about a 10-year-old who is learning to play guitar at a local senior center.
On Wednesday, in an interview at The Record’s office, he said he was vindicated by the county attorney’s decision, adding that he was grateful that the paper’s devices were being returned. He criticized the county attorney and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation for releasing statements about the decision before telling him.
He proudly held up a print copy of this week’s edition, which staff members had stayed up late into the night to produce because of the missing devices. “SEIZED … but not silenced” read the top headline, in 200-point font.
“You cannot let bullies win, and eventually a bully will cross the line to the point that it becomes so egregious that other people come around and support you,” Mr. Meyer said.
Bernard J. Rhodes, a lawyer who represents The Record, called the county’s decision to withdraw its search warrant and return the seized items “a promising first step.”
“However, it does nothing to recompense the paper for the violation of its First Amendment rights when the search was conducted,” he added, “and most regrettably, does not return Joan Meyer.”
Mr. Meyer said the last 24 hours of his mother’s life were awful, but that she would have enjoyed the support The Record has received — 2,000 more people have subscribed to the paper in just the last few days — amid its ongoing dispute with law enforcement agencies.
“She would have liked to be thought of as almost a martyr for the cause,” he said.