Gag order limited in post-conviction murder case proceedings
PENNSYLVANIA–In mid-April, the Lancaster judge presiding over the post-conviction proceedings of convicted murderer Lisa Michelle Lambert modified a sweeping gag order in response to a First Amendment challenge by the news media.
The original gag order, issued in early March by Common Pleas Court Judge Lawrence Stengel, forbade anyone associated with the case, including parties, witnesses, investigators, law-enforcement personnel and relatives of the victim and defendant, from speaking with journalists. The new order continues to gag attorneys, parties and law enforcement, but does not apply to potential witnesses and family members.
Stengel said that his original gag order did “nothing more than require compliance with” professional rules governing attorney conduct. However, Stengel said that he modified the order because although “fairness may dictate the inclusion of witnesses and family members in orders limiting publicity, a strict construction of existing case law would seem to provide less than complete support.”
The gag order was challenged on First Amendment grounds by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, ABC and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers’ Association.
The court rejected a news media argument that publicity could not prejudice Lambert because she had already been convicted and the underlying proceedings did not involve a jury, reasoning that Lambert may ultimately seek a new trial.
Lambert was sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1991 murder of 16-year-old Laurie Show. Lambert was freed last year by a federal judge who found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and who ruled that Lambert was “actually innocent,” but a federal appeals panel in Philadelphia (3d Cir.) overturned that decision in February because Lambert had not exhausted her state appeals before seeking relief in federal court. Stengel ordered Lambert back to prison in early April pending her pursuit of a state appeal.
Stengel took umbrage at media claims that proceedings involving Lambert were shrouded in secrecy, calling them “nothing more than a distortion of the truth.” Stengel said that the court had taken “extraordinary efforts” to ensure public access to all developments in the case, such as posting documents on the court’s website and faxing information to members of the news media.
Stengel rejected a specific request by ABC for a waiver of the gag order’s restrictions because the network had previously scheduled interviews in connection with production of a television program about the case. According to Stengel, the modified gag order left the network free to interview persons other than the attorneys. (Pennsylvania v. Lambert; Media Counsel: Amy Ginensky, Philadelphia)