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Contempt proceedings against news organizations postponed

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Contempt proceedings against news organizations postponed

  • The Supreme Court of Rhode Island delayed contempt proceedings against The Providence Journal and KLEE-6 TV station last week, saying it needed more information about a pretrial lower court order prohibiting the media from identifying witnesses.

Jan. 16, 2004 — The Rhode Island Supreme Court delayed contempt-of-court proceedings against two Providence news organizations last week so it could further investigation the charges against them.

On the recommendation of the state’s attorney general, The Providence Journal and TV station KLEE-6 were held in contempt of court in November by Judge William Dmitri of Superior Court in Providence for allegedly violating his pretrial order that prohibited them from identifying witnesses at a murder trial. The news organizations’ attorney, Joseph Cavanagh Jr., filed a petition with the high court last month seeking a stay, calling the pretrial draft order “patently unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court ruled Jan. 9 that it needed more information about each group’s knowledge of Dmitri’s pretrial order.

At the request of Attorney General Patrick Lynch, Dmitri issued a restraining order Oct. 22 that prohibited the media from identifying potential witnesses at the murder trial of Charles Pona. Pona was accused of murdering 15-year-old Jennifer Rivera, who was shot and killed outside her Providence home one day before she was to testify against him in a different trial.

Pona was found guilty in the murder of Rivera in November.

During that trial, the Journal published a photograph of witness Miguel Perez. The picture, however, was taken at a December 2001 court appearance in an unrelated matter. KLEE-6 recorded witness Dennis Fullen’s Nov. 4 testimony and subsequently aired the footage. The station also broadcast the Journal‘s picture of Perez.

Lynch asked the court following the trial to hold both news organizations in criminal contempt for violating the Oct. 22 order. The charges were not filed sooner because Dmitri did not want to distract the court proceedings, according to Lynch. Dmitri did, however, ban all cameras from the court following the KLEE-6 broadcast.

In his petition, Cavanagh claimed that since the file photo of Perez was taken legally at a separate court appearance, it is unconstitutional to ban a media outlet from making it public. He further argued that neither media outlet was aware of the Oct. 22 order until after it was issued, and neither outlet had a chance to contest it.

The high court has postponed all further proceedings in the case pending a full inquiry by Dmitri, and a record supporting his findings.

(Rhode Island v. Charles Pona; Media Counsel: Joseph Cavanagh Jr., Blish & Cavanagh, Providence) LH

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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