Bestselling true-crime author Suzy Spencer is giving the Texas Department of Criminal Justice hell for the holidays.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice clearly did not comprehend just whom it was dealing with when it denied bestselling true-crime author Suzy Spencer interview access to Tracey Tarlton, the former BookPeople employee who pleaded guilty to the murder of Steven Beard and testified against Beard's widow, Celeste Beard Johnson, in exchange for a 20-year sentence. Johnson was then convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison in March for persuading Tarlton, her then lover, into killing her then husband in 1999. The interview with Tarlton would have been Spencer's second for a St. Martin's Press book the author has been researching for years. But Spencer was recently informed by TDCJ Public Information Officer Michelle Lyons, "I cannot process your request under our current media guidelines and policies which do not allow for interviews between inmates and book authors." As reported in this space last week, Spencer was surprised and frustrated, and that frustration has shifted into a full-scale grassroots push to grant "book authors" the same access rights as news media. In a letter to Austin Rep. Todd Baxter, which was sent in a slightly different form to Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Spencer asserts that she had full cooperation from former TDCJ public information officers Larry Todd and Larry Fitzgerald, but that has changed with the arrival of Lyons and Mike Viesca, PIO director. "Katie Couric, who hosted the Macy's Thanksgiving parade and went on Jay Leno to proclaim her breasts are real, is considered legit media by TDCJ and would be allowed an inmate interview," she writes. "But me -- Suzy Spencer -- who focuses solely on crime and has appeared as an expert on ABC World News, Good Morning America, Primetime Thursday, Dateline NBC, and countless shows on CNN, Fox News, and Court TV is not considered legit media. I find this appalling and discriminatory." Lyons, a former reporter, told the Chronicle last week via e-mail that the policy regarding authors and freelancers is in place because of staff shortage, credential- and identity-verification issues, and time (in that book authors' interviews are often much longer than the 45-60 minutes granted news media). And she later responded to Spencer's offer to resubmit letterhead from St. Martin's: "[I]t doesn't change our policy, nor does it address the other reasons we don't set up media interviews for book authors. ... [W]hether or not I can verify you are indeed writing a book for St. Martin's, that doesn't address the problem of how we can verify other authors' credentials. This is our policy. ... [I]f an exception is made for you, everyone will expect one should be made for them as well." By all appearances, however, Section VIII: "Access by Other Writers and Researchers" in the TDCJ policy, updated Dec. 28, 2001, and signed by Executive Director Gary L. Johnson, states nothing to disallow "book authors" from interviewing inmates. Rather, they must make "special advance arrangement" through the warden and/or the Research Evaluation and Development Group under the auspices of Executive Administrative Services, which, according to Spencer's letter to Rep. Baxter, is unfair and absurd. "RED readily admits they are set up for academic research, not journalistic research," Spencer writes. "Additionally, to go through RED, an author must fill out and have notarized a form that forces us to outline our criminal history, including DWIs, subjects us to a urine test, and requires that we not reveal the name of the inmate we're interviewing in our book, which rather defeats the purpose. While I can easily pass the criminal history check and the urine test, I find it discriminatory that only authors have to go through this process -- not cameramen, TV reporters or newspaper or magazine reporters." More on this as it develops, especially since Jan Reid and David Marion Wilkinson have joined the cause, while novelists Sarah Bird and Louise Redd have unleashed letter-writing campaigns of their own, reportedly. To Attorney General Greg Abbot. To get involved your own damn self, e-mail

Recommended This Week: Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, at BookPeople on Friday, Dec. 5, 10am. Vouchers, which are on sale now if still available, will be exchanged for signed editions of Living History during the hour-and-a-half event. Also, Saturday, Dec. 6, 11am-5pm at the Austin History Center, the Holiday Book, Art, and Gift Sale benefiting the AHC and Friends of the Austin Public Library.

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Greg Abbott, Michelle Lyons, Mike Viesca, Sarah Bird, Louise Redd, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Gary L. Johnson, Tracey Tarlton, Celeste Beard Johnson, Steven Beard, Suzy Spencer, BookPeople, Gonzalo Barrientos, Todd Baxter, St. Martin's Press

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