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Judge restrains newspaper from reporting attorney time records

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  1. Prior Restraint
Judge restrains newspaper from reporting attorney time records 11/16/98 TENNESSEE--A Knoxville judge in early November upheld its earlier decision to…

Judge restrains newspaper from reporting attorney time records

11/16/98

TENNESSEE–A Knoxville judge in early November upheld its earlier decision to restrain The Knoxville News-Sentinel from publishing information from court-appointed defense counsels’ time records leaked to the newspaper in the capital murder trial of accused serial killer Thomas “Zoo Man” Huskey.

The newspaper had already violated an earlier temporary restraining order on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, but the court did not address that violation.

Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner said that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to assign priorities between the First Amendment and a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. After balancing the competing rights, Baumgartner determined that a prior restraint was necessary to protect Huskey’s rights. He also ordered the newspaper to turn over all copies of the sealed records to its counsel until conclusion of the case. The records contained the billing data for the attorneys, who were paid with public funds.

Baumgartner noted that the records contained sensitive information related to defense strategy and preparation of trial, and that the disclosure of the information would provide the prosecutor’s office with information that could damage Huskey’s defense. The court further held that it saw no alternative measures which could mitigate the effects of pretrial publicity and the effect such publicity would have on Huskey’s right to a fair trial.

In 1991 and 1992, Huskey was convicted for several rapes and currently faces trial in January 1999 for the murders of four women. If convicted, he faces the death penalty. Huskey’s case is reported to be among the most expensive in state history.

The News-Sentinel intervened in the case in June 1997 to gain access to sealed attorney bills, time sheets, and expenses in the case. In July 1997, Baumgartner ordered disclosure of the total amount paid for Huskey’s defense and experts, but kept the attorneys’ detailed time sheets sealed. On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld Baumgartner’s decision.

On October 22, 1998, a reporter for the News-Sentinel contacted Hebert S. Moncier, one of Huskey’s attorneys, and told him that he had copies of the sealed time records. Moncier immediately attempted to block the publication of any story about the records. A telephone conference between the parties and the judge was held on October 24. During the conference, the newspaper revealed that it had been in possession of the records since May 1998, but had postponed publication until the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on the issue. The reporter also noted that he had mistakenly received more expansive records from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upon checking the file.

Baumgartner issued a temporary restraining order on October 24 preventing the newspaper from publishing or disseminating information from the detailed time records. The newspaper chose to disregard the order, deciding that it was “transparently invalid” and therefore unconstitutional. The News-Sentinel published its story on October 25. (State of Tennessee v. Thomas Dee Huskey; Media Counsel: Richard Hollow, Knoxville)