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Court orders background checks for reporters covering murder trial

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Feb 9, 2001    

Court orders background checks for reporters covering murder trial

  • A court official agreed to review the policy after the media objected to the practice even though nearly 50 reporters complied.

A California court subjected 48 reporters to background checks and fingerprints before giving them press credentials for an upcoming murder trial. After one Associated Press reporter objected to the practice, other media organizations rallied in opposition. As a result, the court said on Feb. 9 that it would re-evaluate its policy.

Citing security concerns in the trial of Cary Stayner, who is charged with murdering three tourists near Yosemite National Park, court officials in Mariposa County sent a fax to reporters in January directing them to submit fingerprints to their local police station.

Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Berest defended the stringent security measures because the Stayner case is a first for the small county.

“We have not had a case of this magnitude in our court,” Berest said.

When the AP ran a story about the practice on Feb. 8, press organizations questioned the policy’s validity, arguing it violated press rights and the right to attend a trial.

“We are aware of concerns regarding the press,” Berest said. The issue will be rectified before Stayner’s preliminary hearing on March 5, he said.

A policy change will come too late for many journalists who already went through the process as a prerequisite to cover Stayner’s second high-profile trial. Stayner is currently serving a federal life sentence for decapitating Joie Armstrong in Yosemite National Park in 1999.

Stayner’s conviction may have created confusion for court officials, who said they followed the same procedure used in Stayner’s federal trial. But in that case, reporters submitted photo identification to get credentials. The federal court did not require fingerprints.

The murder which led to the state trial also garnered national attention. In 1999, Carole Sund, her daughter Juli, and family friend Silvina Pelosso disappeared while vacationing in Yosemite. The burned bodies of Carole Sund and Pelosso were found a month later in the trunk of their car. Police found Juli Sund’s body a week later.

(California v. Stayner) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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