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Judge bars media, but not public, from hearing in murder case

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Judge bars media, but not public, from hearing in murder case 01/13/97 CALIFORNIA--In late December, a Superior Court judge in…

Judge bars media, but not public, from hearing in murder case

01/13/97

CALIFORNIA–In late December, a Superior Court judge in Bakersfield rejected a media challenge to an order excluding the media, but not the public, from pretrial proceedings in a highly publicized criminal trial where the defendant stands accused of killing his girlfriend’s seven-year-old son. The media parties are preparing an appeal to the state Court of Appeal in Fresno.

Without prior notice, Judge Clarence Westra ruled from the bench that the media could not attend a November 18, 1996 suppression hearing to determine the admissibility of audiotaped statements made by the defendant to the police. At Westra’s direction, a bailiff questioned everyone who attempted to enter the courtroom, and excluded anyone affiliated with a media group. After the hearing, the judge granted the media reentry into the courtroom.

In mid-December, two local television stations and a radio station petitioned Westra to reconsider, arguing that the court had no authority to exclude the media from an otherwise public proceeding, that the media had been denied an opportunity to challenge the order, and that there was no showing of compelling circumstances warranting exclusion.

The media groups acknowledged that the order was moot because they were no longer being excluded from the courtroom, but argued that the order “was issued in derogation of the Constitution,” and that the issue presented was “capable of repetition, yet evading review.”

After hearing argument on December 24, 1996, Westra upheld his earlier order, stating that whether his order excluding the media but not the public from the suppression hearing violated the First Amendment was a “gray area.” Also, the court construed the state constitution’s public trial provision, which guarantees a fair trial to “the people” as well as to the defendant, to apply to the prosecution rather than the public.

The media groups raising the challenge are KERO-TV, KGET-TV and KUZZ-FM. As of early January, the jury in the murder trial was in deliberations.

In early December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear California v. Rollins, where another Superior Court judge in Bakersfield initially excluded only the media from pretrial criminal proceedings, but, after media protests, excluded both the press and the public. (California v. Shoemaker; Media Counsel: Tobias Dorsey, Bakersfield)