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Judge refuses to lift gag order in murder trial

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Judge refuses to lift gag order in murder trial07/31/95 CALIFORNIA--A municipal judge in Hanford, Calif., refused in early July to…

Judge refuses to lift gag order in murder trial

07/31/95

CALIFORNIA–A municipal judge in Hanford, Calif., refused in early July to lift a gag order on all court officials, lawyers, police officers and witnesses in an abduction and murder case that prohibits them from commenting on the case, saying the media sought only to “bolster circulation or ratings.”

Three area newspapers — The Hanford Sentinel, the Fresno Bee and The Visalia Times-Delta — opposed the gag order in late June. The gag order restricted official comment on the case of Navy petty officer Gene Estel McCurdy, who is charged with the kidnapping and murder of an 8-year-old girl.

Third-grader Maria Piceno disappeared from a Hanford grocery store in late March, and her body was found about two weeks later in a creek 60 miles south.

Judge Ronald Maciel has designated one official, an executive officer of the court, to discuss the case with the media.

The judge ruled that the media had no standing to challenge the gag order because the prohibition was directed at court officials, not the press.

The judge further held that the gag order was a valid protection of the defendant’s rights to due process and a fair trial. By issuing the restraint, the judge said, he was also protecting the public generally by stopping potentially prejudicial pretrial publicity. “It would be gainsaying to assert,” the judge wrote, “that their endeavors are anything more than commercial speech.”

The judge weighed the rights of the press against the defendant’s free trial rights, saying that the press’ asserted rights are “simply a license to publish material that eventually descends to the lowest common denominator of information gathering and dissemination, sweeping all but the most steadfast of professional journalists under the tidal wave of sensationalism designed to bolster circulation or ratings.”

The newspapers are considering an appeal. (The People of the State of California v. Gene Estel McCurdy; Media Counsel: Donald Glasrud, Fresno)