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Judge fines reporters despite unlawful prior restraint

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 5.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 5.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled April 22 that a judge could bar the media from contacting jurors but could not ban the press from reporting the names of jurors read in open court. The written opinion of the April decision was released on July 18.

Despite the ruling, a Superior Court judge held four Philadelphia Inquirer reporters in contempt for printing the name of a juror. The decision came after the same judge punished a Philadelphia Magazine writer for approaching a juror.

Both rulings arose from the murder trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander, who is accused of arranging his wife’s murder. Neulander’s trial last fall resulted in a mistrial, and he is expected to be tried again this month.

At trial, Judge Linda Baxter issued an order banning any press contact with jurors. Baxter also barred the press from publishing juror names, even though the names had been read in court, and restricted them from identifying jurors in any way.

A mistrial in the Neulander case was declared because the jury could not reach a verdict. The press then asked Baxter to dissolve her order, but Baxter ordered that the ban on juror contact and on publishing juror names be reaffirmed.

Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., which publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, challenged Baxter’s orders. The New Jersey Court of Appeals, however, affirmed Baxter’s orders, leading to an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The New Jersey Supreme Court announced that it would strike down the ban on publishing juror names but affirm the ban on juror contact, at least until after the new trial.

The court stated: “Counsel should not receive pretrial insights into the juror deliberations from the first trial and that no less restrictive alternative than barring juror interviews until completion of the trial will achieve that objective.”

Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz and Justice Virginia Long dissented, finding that both portions of the order infringed on the press’ rights.

The papers’ attorney, Warren W. Faulk, said the newspaper company will formally ask the court to reconsider its decision before deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The papers argued that both restrictions were violations of the First Amendment.

In June, however, a trial judge convicted and sentenced four Inquirer reporters for contempt of court for violating Baxter’s order.

The four reporters — George Anastasia, Joseph A. Gambardello, Emilie Lounsberry and Dwight Ott — were accused of printing the name of a juror shortly after the mistrial was declared. Three of the reporters, Anastasia, Lounsberry and Ott, were accused of attempting to contact jurors.

The prosecutors argued that the reporters violated the order by publishing the name of a juror, Colleen Darnell. The article, published on Nov. 16, 2001, alleged that Darnell had a Philadelphia address and might not have been a resident of New Jersey, where the trial took place. A state law requires jurors to be residents of the county in which the trials are held.

Darnell, her stepfather and two other jurors testified about efforts by Inquirer reporters to contact them. The jurors testified that Lounsberry mailed letters to them, expressing an interest in interviewing any juror who wanted to talk.

The jurors also testified that Baxter told them they had the right to speak to the press, but Baxter told them to contact her if they were approached by reporters.

Attorneys for the reporters argued that Baxter’s order did not prevent reporters from letting the jurors know that the paper would be interested in interviews, if the jurors wished to speak. They also argued that the prosecutors did not prove that the reporters knew of Baxter’s order.

Judge Theodore Z. Davis on June 17 found the reporters guilty of violating the order and held them in contempt. Davis fined each of the reporters $1,000 for publishing the name of one of the jurors. He sentenced Anastasia, Lounsberry and Ott to six months in jail but suspended part of the sentence in exchange for community service. Anastasia was given five days of community service, and Ott and Lounsberry were each given 10 days in a community cleanup program administered by the sheriff’s department.

Last February, Davis fined Carol Saline of Philadelphia Magazine $1,000 and gave her a suspended 30-day jail sentence for violating the same order.

According to court hearings, Saline on Nov. 9 asked a juror during the trial whether the jurors would be willing to speak to the press when the case ended. The juror mentioned the incident to other jurors and reported it to Baxter.

The maximum penalty for contempt is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The reporters who were given the suspended sentence could be sent to jail for six months if they violate the order again. Lawyers for the reporters said they would appeal. (State v. Neulander; State v. Anastasia)AG