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Appeals court reverses reporters' contempt convictions

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Appeals court reverses reporters’ contempt convictions

  • A New Jersey appellate court vacated the contempt convictions of four Philadelphia Inquirer reporters who violated a judge’s order in the high-profile murder trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander.

May 5, 2004 — A New Jersey appeals court overturned the contempt convictions of four Philadelphia Inquirer reporters yesterday, ruling that the state Supreme Court had already held that the order the reporters violated was unconstitutional.

Reporters Joseph Gambardello, George Anastasia, Dwight Ott and Emilie Lounsberry were convicted of contempt of court in June 2002 for violating Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter’s order forbidding the media from publishing the names of jurors, or seeking interviews with jurors, after the 2001 mistrial of Rabbi Fred Neulander. Neulander was tried again in 2002, and found guilty of murder for hiring someone to kill his wife.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court found that because the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the order provision forbidding the media from publishing the names of jurors, the contempt convictions must be reversed.

The court found that the contempt convictions for seeking interviews with jurors were also void. Although the reporters sought to interview jurors in violation of the order, that portion of the order was subsequently modified and the reporters were not successful in gaining interviews with the jurors.

Tempering its opinion, the court noted, “We caution, however, that media representatives should not read this opinion as a license to flout judicial media orders they may disagree with.”

The contempt convictions carried a $1,000 fine for each reporter and a sentence of five to 10 days of community service for the three reporters who violated the interview order. Their sentences were never served because the newspaper appealed the convictions.

“It’s a great result,” said Katherine Hatton, vice president and general counsel of the Inquirer . “We are glad that the court carefully looked at our arguments.”

(In the Matter of Gambardello, Anastasia, Ott and Lounsberry) KM

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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