Everything online journalists need to protect their legal rights. This free resource culls from all Reporters Committee resources and includes exclusive content on digital media law issues.
A Colorado judge denied the media's request to film and photograph Monday's hearing of the man accused of killing 12 and wounding 58 people at an Aurora movie theater last week.
Arapahoe County District Court Judge William Sylvester has ordered that no cameras or audio recording be allowed at James Holmes' July 30 hearing where charges are expected to be filed against him. The order is part of a broader trend of restrictions issued by Sylvester limiting press coverage in the Colorado shooting.
A gag order issued Monday night limits pre-trial publicity in the case. Another court order issued on Monday, but made public only on Thursday, bars the University of Colorado from disclosing information about Holmes in response to open records requests. Holmes was a neuroscience graduate student at the university who recently dropped out of the program.
In addition, all documents in the case, including the "orders, search warrants, affidavits and case file" have been sealed.
"If you were to attend a hearing, it would be very difficult to understand what they were talking about, because you were prevented from reading the charges beforehand," said Rick Serrano of the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the case.
The Denver Post also reported yesterday that Aurora City Attorney Charlie Richardson ordered the city to deny all records requests for information in the Holmes case. Richardson reportedly cited the gag order on pre-trial publicity to justify the policy. But the Post's attorney, Steve Zansberg, said this action may not be justifiable under the order.
Under Colorado open records law, "criminal justice records" can be withheld when their release would be "contrary to public interest," and, according to Zansberg, courts have been "very deferential" to agencies' decisions to withhold such records.
"The judge’s order is limited to parties and agencies involved in the case. It’s not my understanding that every agency in city government is involved in the prosecution," Zansberg said in an interview. "[The gag order] applies to extrajudicial statements, and not records under our state open records law."
Like the restrictions in gag orders often issued in similarly high-profile criminal cases, the order prohibits lawyers for both sides and law-enforcement agencies and officers from making out-of-court statements that reasonably would be expected to be publicly disseminated and to substantially prejudice a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial by a jury.
Under this standard, attorneys may discuss basic facts about the case, including the scheduling or outcome of any step in the prosecution, information contained in the public record and the claim and defense involved in the case, but are restricted from commenting on other matters -- for example, the nature of physical evidence to be presented.
In addition to the same restrictions on out-of-court statements imposed on lawyers involved in the case, police officers and agencies with authority over a defendant in custody may not take actions that deliberately expose that person to photographing or televising by the news media.
Following leaked news reports on Wednesday about a package allegedly mailed by Holmes to the University of Colorado, Judge Sylvester issued a new order later that day reasserting the restrictions on disseminating information in the case.
"It seems to me like the Judge has good intentions, but is trying to manage everything outside his courtroom," said Serrano. "I've covered a lot of criminal cases and I’ve never seen this sweeping of a gag order. I've never seen [a case] where they seal the whole thing."
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Colorado - Open Courts Compendium: A. In general
· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Sealing the trial record