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Gag order issued, documents unsealed in Peterson case

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Gag order issued, documents unsealed in Peterson case

  • The judge justified the gag order because of the publicity generated by the case; and reporters have been denied access to their own wiretapped conversations with Scott Peterson.

June 16, 2003 — Three separate rulings issued June 12 will affect the information disclosure in the Scott Peterson murder case.

A gag order imposed by Superior Court Judge Al Girolami prohibits attorneys, law enforcement officials, and others involved in the case from speaking publicly about most aspects of the trial.

Girolami issued the protective order in response due to the “massive” pre-trial publicity generated by the case, he wrote in his ruling. “If this case were to proceed to trial without a Protective Order in place until shortly before jury selection, all the statements by the witnesses, all of the rumors and gossip would be rehashed shortly before trial thereby making it extremely difficult to select a fair and impartial jury.”

Girolami wrote that alternatives to a gag order, such as a change of venue or a more extensive jury selection process, were considered, but were deemed ineffective.

Attorneys for both parties have been reminded of their responsibilities under California rules of professional conduct, but information continues to be leaked to the media, Girolami said.

The gag order will probably not “turn down the volume of media disclosure,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition. It may even have the opposite effect, he added. Media outlets who have lost access to authoritative information may rely on less reliable sources unaffected by the order.

“The rumor mill becomes more hungry to the extent the official record dries up,” Francke said.

In a decision with opposite consequences, Judge Roger Beauchesne unsealed eight pre-arrest search warrants. Beauchesne stayed the order pending an appeal.

In his decision to release the search warrants, Beauchesne wrote that high media coverage is not enough to justify sealed records. He cited a “change in circumstances” as the primary reason for unsealing the records at this time.

Prior to Peterson’s arrest, the court denied The Modesto Bee’s request to see the warrants. A court of appeals upheld the decision but noted that a party could request the documents at “another time in the future.”

At the time, sealing the records kept possible suspects from knowing about the investigation, Beauchesne wrote. Because Peterson has been arrested and there appear to be no other suspects, the same threat does not exist.

A third ruling, handed down by a district court of appeal in Fresno, denied reporters access to recorded conversations between themselves and Peterson that were gathered by law enforcement officials who tapped Peterson’s phone prior to his arrest, the Modesto Bee reported.

(People v. Peterson: Media Counsel, Charity Kenyon, Riegels Campos & Kenyon LLP, Sacramento; In re Eight Sealed Search Warrants, Affidavits and Returns — Laci Peterson Investigation: Media Counsel, Charity Kenyon, Riegels Campos & Kenyon LLP, Sacramento; Hernandez et al v. People et al: Media Counsel, Rochelle Wilcox, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Los Angeles) EH

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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