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Judge changes gag order in crematorium case

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    NMU         GEORGIA         Secret Courts         Mar 7, 2002    

Judge changes gag order in crematorium case

  • A modified gag order issued today would make the public more aware of public health, safety and environmental concerns related to a Georgia crematorium where about 300 corpses were discovered last month, but still includes restrictions on what can be released to the media.

A Georgia judge today modified a gag order issued in February in the case of a man charged in relation to the disposal of roughly 300 corpses at his crematorium, reigning in the wide sweep of the initial order but letting portions that restrict some media access stand.

Superior Court of Walker County Judge William Ralph Hill said he imposed the gag order to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial and keep court proceedings under control. Hill said the order was an attempt to keep prejudicial information from prospective jurors.

Ken Poston, the attorney for defendant Ray Brent Marsh, the crematorium’s operator, sought the order to stop the dissemination of more information to the media.

The initial gag order prohibited nearly every person involved in the case, including witnesses, from talking to the media. The order would have allowed the media to report on the events that transpire in the courtroom and those items which are public records.

Hill heard arguments about the gag order on March 1.

Hill modified the gag order today to increase the flow of information to family members of the deceased and make the public aware of any public health, safety and environmental risks, according to his ruling. The modified gag order prohibits only the defense, prosecution, court staff, the Walker County Sheriff’s Department, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and coroner from speaking to the press.

The order still bars the prohibited parties from disclosing the defendant’s prior criminal record and character and the identities, testimonies or credibility of prospective witnesses. In his ruling, the judge defended putting restrictions on these subject matters, saying there is a serious danger the defendant’s trial rights could be jeopardized.

A number of media coalitions, one of which included the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed motions to have the initial gag order reversed. State Rep. Brian Joyce of Lookout Mountain also wrote a letter to Hill, opposing the gag order.

“It would be detrimental to the community to foster an atmosphere of rumor and gossip, which surely a gag order will do,” said Joyce in a letter to Hill. “Now is the time for complete openness and full disclosure, which will enable the suffering families to start to heal. I truly believe that less information in this situation is dangerous to our community.”

(Georgia v. Marsh: Media Counsel: Gregg Thomas, Holland & Knight, Tampa) KG

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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