NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MASSACHUSETTS · Secret Courts · Nov. 20, 2006
High-profile murder trial leads to disputes over coverage
Nov. 20, 2006 · The judge in a Massachusetts murder trial briefly threatened to hold a newspaper in contempt of court for reporting the name of a dismissed juror, one of several skirmishes between the media and the judge in the high-profile Christa Worthington trial.
Worthington, a well known fashion writer, was stabbed to death on January 6, 2002. She was found dead in her home in a small town in Cape Cod, her two-year-old daughter crying by her side.
On Thursday, the jury found garbage collector Christopher McCowen guilty of the rape and murder of Worthington.
The case attracted widespread media attention. Judge Gary Nickerson permitted television cameras to broadcast live footage of the trial but insisted on some media restrictions and issued an order establishing guidelines early on in the proceedings.
At one point, the judge admonished a CBS News camera crew for videotaping jurors as they left court, according to media reports.
Another dispute arose when one juror was dismissed from service last week after the jury had already undergone deliberations.
The juror, Rachel Lynn Huffman, was discharged after she was heard on a jailhouse tape discussing media coverage of the case with her boyfriend while she was sequestered, according to the Boston Herald. Her boyfriend was jailed after being accused of involvement in a shooting.
The judge had stated at the beginning of the proceedings that the court would not release jurors’ names during the trial.
After Huffman’s discharge, her name was mentioned in open court and on Court TV. The Cape Cod Times then published her name in an article online.
When the judge learned that the Times had published the discharged juror’s name, he said he was going to find both media outlets in contempt of court and set a hearing for the next day.
The Times averted the contempt of court hearing by editing the juror’s name out of the online article but filed a motion asking that Nickerson allow the paper to print the name.
The Times’ motion also asked that the judge release all of the names.
The Times’ lawyer, Michael Kennefick, argued that the judge had not sufficiently justified why the jurors’ names must be kept secret.
Nickerson ruled that the paper could publish the discharged juror’s name but asked for further briefing regarding the request that all of the jurors’ names be released.
However, after the verdict was announced, the paper withdrew the motion.
According to Kennefick, the newspaper decided to withdraw because the issue was no longer as timely and because some of the jurors received death threats.
Kennefick said that at this point the paper has no plans to pursue the matter but that the option remains open.
(Massachusetts v. McCowen, Media Counsel: Michael Kennefick, Perry, Hicks, Crotty and Deshaies, LLP, Barnstable, Mass.) — CS