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Judge denies motion to order Web site to delete content

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    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Prior Restraints    

Judge denies motion to order Web site to delete content

  • A circuit court judge in Jacksonville refused to order a newspaper and its Web site to stop covering the case of a serial murderer, but a request to seal records will be decided in January.

Dec. 17, 2003 — A circuit court judge in Jacksonville, Fla., yesterday refused to order a local newspaper company to remove stories from its Web site and to stop covering a serial murder case.

The extraordinary motion, filed last week by lawyers for accused serial killer Paul Durousseau, said coverage of the case by The Florida Times-Union and its Web site, Jacksonville.com, would prevent the defendant from receiving a fair trial. The Times-Union has published a pair of stories outlining the case against Durousseau, a former taxi driver charged with the murder of six women in Florida and one woman in Georgia, based largely on public records obtained from prosecutors. Two of the women killed were pregnant.

“It was a real novel motion,” said Pat Yack, editor of the Times-Union. “But the judge said he’s not going to ask us to take anything down.”

According to a story in today’s Times-Union, Judge John Skinner, of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Jacksonville, told attorneys that he has yet to decide on the second part of the motion, involving sealing records in the case. That decision will likely be made in January, he said.

The Times-Union has accessed thousands of records relating to the case from the prosecution. Once a document is exchanged through the discovery process, it is public under Florida law. Jacksonville.com now has a special multimedia section dedicated to ongoing coverage of the case, including video clips of police officers questioning Durousseau, and audio clips of him talking to family members on the phone from prison.

All recordings were made by law enforcement authorities and released in accordance to the state’s Sunshine Law. Florida’s public records law is widely regarded by open government advocates as the best in the nation.

“It’s been an incredible exercise in public records,” said Jim Schoettler, the reporter for Jacksonville.com who’s covering the case. “I don’t think the public ever gets a glimpse at these kinds of things.”

Bill White, chief assistant public defender for Duval County, told the Times-Union that access isn’t always a good thing. A person’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, White said, sometimes justifies imposing prior restraint upon the press.

“I know that’s a bad word for journalists,” White told the newspaper, for a Dec. 12 article, “but it is a legitimate legal concept. We’re trying . . . to minimize the press coverage.”

Yack said he expects the defense will eventually file a motion for a change of venue, due to the notoriety of the case. Durousseau, 33, has pleaded innocent to all seven charges of first-degree murder.

“People often forget that one of the most prominent agencies in their cities and towns . . . is the police department,” Schoettler said. “The public has an ownership in that, and the more inside skinny we get . . . the more people will understand how the system works and doesn’t work. I think that’s valuable to people.”

(Florida v. Durousseau) JL


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