Judge denies request to unseal records, remove gag in murder case
CALIFORNIA–In mid-July, a superior court judge in Ventura denied a motion by two newspapers to unseal documents and to amend a sweeping gag order in a high- profile murder case.
Although he said he has “a deep and abiding regard for the rights of the press and the public to know precisely how this business is conducted,” Ventura County Superior Court Judge Frederick Jones said that the defendants’ fair trial rights would be unduly jeopardized if he unsealed the documents and eased the gag order, which states that “no attorney or party to this case or any person connected to any attorney or party to this case are to speak to any other person about this action.”
The defendants, Diana Haun and Michael Dally, are charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy for allegedly murdering Dally’s wife in May 1996.
The motion was filed by attorneys for the Los Angeles Times and the Ventura County Star, who argued that the press and public have a First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings and related documents and that there was no evidence that access would substantially harm the defendants’ rights. At the very least, the attorneys argued, the gag order should be more narrowly tailored.
Jones has been highly critical of media coverage surrounding the case. According to the Times, Jones said that it was necessary to hold jury selection in Santa Barbara, outside of Ventura County “because of the media attention paid this case by the Ventura County Star and by the Los Angeles Times.”
Prosecutors opposed modifying the gag order and unsealing the documents. Counsel for the defense opposed unsealing the documents, but said it might be appropriate to modify the gag order to enable the attorneys to clarify issues raised in court. The documents sought by the media discussed two secret witnesses and personal medical records.
If convicted, the defendants could face the death penalty. They will be tried separately; Haun’s trial commenced on August 4. (California v. Haun; Media Counsel: Karlene Goller, Los Angeles)