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Judge in Malvo trial issues gag order on attorneys

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Judge in Malvo trial issues gag order on attorneys

  • Frustrated by The Washington Post’s publication of a letter from the sniper suspect, Judge Jane Marum Roush ordered lawyers to stop talking to the press.

Dec. 5, 2003 — Annoyed by the apparent leak of a letter to The Washington Post, the judge overseeing the murder trial of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo issued a gag order yesterday that bars attorneys from talking to the press.

Judge Jane Marum Roush, of the Circuit Court in Chesapeake, Va., entered the order after the Post yesterday published the text of a rambling, semi-coherent letter from Malvo to LaToria Williams, the niece of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad. The letter was written just weeks before the sniper attacks began in October 2002.

Malvo, 18, is accused of killing 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area.

Roush had refused to let defense lawyers enter the letter as evidence, ruling that it was inadmissible hearsay. His lawyers had sought to put the letter in evidence to support an insanity defense.

The Post did not say how it obtained the letter, in which Malvo wrote, “I’m perceived as a walking time bomb waiting to explode.” In court yesterday, Roush reportedly asked defense lawyers and prosecutors whether they had leaked the letter, but everyone denied having done so.

Roush also said in court that she was bothered by the daily press conferences the defense attorneys had been holding, according to a story by The Associated Press.

“I’m going to enter a gag order because I am increasingly disturbed by this. I think it’s an attempt to reach the jurors or the jurors’ families,” Roush said, according to the AP.

Gag orders on attorneys during trials are relatively common. Still, such an order makes it more difficult for the press to report the full story of what is taking place at a trial, according to John Stevens, an award-winning investigative journalist in Portland, Ore. Stevens is currently challenging a gag order in the high-profile murder case against Ward Weaver, an Oregon man accused of killing two young girls.

“Unless there is tangible, specific evidence that letting people talk to the press will hurt the fairness of the trial, [a judge should] let the chips fall where they may,” Stevens said. “People are smart enough to sort things out.”

(Commonwealth of Virginia v. Lee Boyd Malvo, Chesapeake, Va.) JM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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