Judge lifts me­dia or­der

The Times chal­lenged a block on pub­lish­ing de­scrip­tion of 2 men charged with mur­der.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Maya Lau

A Los An­ge­les County judge Fri­day re­versed an or­der he is­sued two days ear­lier that barred jour­nal­ists from pub­lish­ing a de­scrip­tion of two men charged with mur­der who have ap­peared in open court.

The re­ver­sal came af­ter The Times chal­lenged the or­der on grounds that it was an un­con­sti­tu­tional prior re­straint on free speech.

Su­pe­rior Court Judge Gus­tavo N. Sz­traicher ac­knowl­edged he did not fully un­der­stand the scope of an ob­jec­tion he sus­tained from a de­fense at­tor­ney Wednesday that any “de­scrip­tors” of a de­fen­dant not be pub­lished in the me­dia be­cause do­ing so could un­duly in­flu­ence po­ten­tial wit­nesses.

Al­ter­nate Pub­lic De­fender Ernesto Pacheco clar­i­fied Fri­day that he didn’t want de­tails in­clud­ing the gen­der,

race, height, weight, hair color or tat­toos on his client, De­jone Wright, to be pub­li­cized. Wright’s age, height, weight, hair color, eye color and race are listed on a pub­lic on­line ros­ter of county jail in­mates.

In re­vers­ing his or­der, Sz­traicher said “any ob­ser­va­tions made by a re­porter who is law­fully in court … may be re­ported and dis­sem­i­nated.”

The move marked the sec­ond time in less than a month that Sz­traicher re­versed an or­der he made pro­hibit­ing jour­nal­ists from pub­lish­ing as­pects of a court pro­ceed­ing.

Last month he al­lowed pho­tos to be taken in court of a man charged with killing mul­ti­ple home­less peo­ple but later told jour­nal­ists they were not per­mit­ted to pub­lish the im­ages. He soon un­did his or­der af­ter The Times and the As­so­ci­ated Press said it vi­o­lated the 1st Amend­ment.

At a pro­ceed­ing Wednesday at­tended by Times re­porter Cindy Chang, Sz­traicher ad­dressed a re­quest from The Times to take pho­to­graphs in the court­room. Pacheco asked the judge to deny the pic­ture re­quest and to pro­hibit jour­nal­ists from pub­lish­ing any de­scrip­tors of his client.

Sz­traicher dis­al­lowed pho­to­graphs and sus­tained the ob­jec­tion about the de­scrip­tors.

Pacheco said Fri­day he did not know “to what ex­tent [wit­ness] iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is crit­i­cal” in the case but ar­gued that any in­for­ma­tion on his client’s ap­pear­ance, if pub­lished, “would af­fect the out­come of a jury trial.”

Dan Laid­man, at­tor­ney for The Times, told the judge that Pacheco’s rea­son­ing was “too spec­u­la­tive” and that gen­eral con­cerns about wit­ness iden­ti­fi­ca­tion were not suf­fi­cient to al­low for an in­fringe­ment on speech.

“No court has ever ap­proved of prior re­straint on those grounds,” he said.

Wright, a slight, dark­skinned 20-year-old with close-cropped black hair in a blue jail uni­form, stood hand­cuffed in an en­closed space in the court­room.

He and Bran­don Dixon, 23, were each charged with one count of mur­der and four counts of pre­med­i­tated at­tempted mur­der in the July 1 death of Garry Dor­ton, a 48-year-old gang in­ter­ven­tion­ist. They also face firearms charges.

A third sus­pect was charged in ju­ve­nile court with one count of mur­der, four counts of at­tempted mur­der and a count each of as­sault with a firearm and shoot­ing at an oc­cu­pied ve­hi­cle.

The judge’s or­der and re­ver­sal ap­plied to Wright and Dixon, with Pacheco rep­re­sent­ing both Fri­day dur­ing the hear­ing. Dixon waived his ap­pear­ance.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held — per­haps most mem­o­rably in the case that al­lowed the press to pub­lish the Pen­tagon Pa­pers in 1971 — that the gov­ern­ment is gen­er­ally for­bid­den from pro­hibit­ing speech. Nu­mer­ous other rul­ings have said mem­bers of the pub­lic can’t be barred from pub­lish­ing what they ob­serve in court.

“It takes a very great deal for a judge to be able to or­der the me­dia not to re­port what is in the pub­lic record, whether it stems from ob­serv­ing some­one in court or based on a journalist’s own re­search and in­ter­views,” said Eu­gene Volokh, a 1st Amend­ment law pro­fes­sor at UCLA.

John East­man, a con­sti­tu­tional law pro­fes­sor at Chap­man Univer­sity, said it would not be un­heard of for a judge to bar pub­li­ca­tion of cer­tain el­e­ments of a court case to pre­serve wit­ness iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, but it would only be jus­ti­fied if there was spe­cific ev­i­dence that the risk of an un­fair trial to a de­fen­dant was ex­tra­or­di­nary.

In 2010, a Cal­i­for­nia ap­pel­late court over­turned an or­der that blocked The Times from pub­lish­ing im­ages of a mur­der sus­pect.

A judge in that case had au­tho­rized pic­tures to be taken in court but later or­dered the im­ages not be pub­lished af­ter a de­fense at­tor­ney said the pho­tos could jeop­ar­dize his client’s right to a fair trial. A three-judge ap­pel­late panel said the de­fen­dant failed to prove his rights would be vi­o­lated.

Fred­er­ick M. Brown Getty Im­ages

TWICE IN less than a month, L.A. County Judge Gus­tavo N. Sz­traicher has re­versed an or­der he made bar­ring pub­li­ca­tion of as­pects of a court pro­ceed­ing.

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