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Judge expands gag order in Oklahoma City bombing trial

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Judge expands gag order in Oklahoma City bombing trial

  • Disclosure of security arrangements in the Terry Nichols murder trial has prompted an unusually broad gag order.

Nov. 7, 2003 — The judge overseeing a 161-count murder trial against Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols broadened an existing gag order Tuesday, after lawyers for both sides complained that local officials had publicly disclosed details of security arrangements for the trial.

District Judge Steven Taylor expanded his gag order to include the Pittsburg County Sheriff’s Office, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and the McAlester, Okla., police and fire departments. All are now banned from talking publicly about the case. Previously, the order applied only to the attorneys on the case.

Taylor issued the new order after several local officials spoke to reporters about security precautions for the trial, which is scheduled to begin next March. Specifically, Pittsburg County Sheriff Jerome “Snookie” Amaranto revealed to a McAlester newspaper that police snipers will be stationed on the courthouse rooftop. In addition, according to a story yesterday in The (Oklahoma City) Daily Oklahoman, prison officials have publicly discussed where Nichols will be held inside the local jail.

In September, Taylor moved the trial to McAlester, located approximately 130 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, due to considerable pretrial publicity.

Nichols is already serving a life sentence without parole in federal prison for eight counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. Nichols now faces murder charges in state court, where he could receive the death penalty if convicted. The murder charges are for the deaths of 160 people and one fetus.

So far, the news media have had mixed results in winning access to Nichols’ upcoming — and long awaited — state trial. In June 2000, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that television cameras won’t be permitted inside the courtroom during the trial. The court said televising the proceedings would violate Nichols’ right to a fair trial.

Another setback for the press occurred in May 2003, when the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the media’s request for photocopies of the exhibits introduced at Nichols’ preliminary hearing.

“The notion that the public is not going to get complete access to the proceedings is astonishing,” said attorney Kelli Sager, who represented media organizations in a request for access to the 1997 federal criminal proceedings against Nichols. “It’s hard to imagine a case of greater public importance than this one.”

Sager pointed out that the public’s ability to monitor the proceedings is weakened when television coverage is prohibited, because few people can attend in person.

The media have won a few battles for access. In its May ruling, the appeals court specified that the press would have full access to the exhibits at trial. And in July 2002, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that records in the case could not be sealed on a “carte blanche” basis, but only if justified by specific findings of fact.

(State of Oklahoma v. Terry Lynn Nichols) JM

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