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Judges changes mind, uncovers newsracks outside murder trial

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    NMU         NORTH CAROLINA         Newsgathering         Feb 7, 2001    

Judges changes mind, uncovers newsracks outside murder trial

  • Defense attorneys initially won an order to conceal the front page of two newspapers because they feared publicity would taint potential jurors.

Responding to a complaint filed by a media company, a North Carolina judge on Jan. 19 allowed two newspapers to uncover the vending rack windows he previously ordered concealed during a murder trial.

Prior to the start of a trial in Rockingham County, Superior Court Judge William Z. Wood Jr. ordered the Reidsville Review and Eden Daily News to cover the windows on vending racks at the courthouse entrance. Defense attorneys requested the order, arguing the news accounts of the murder trial of William Antone Johnson would influence potential jurors.

Media General, the owner of both newspapers, claimed the order violated the First Amendment. Attorney Craig Merritt asked Wood to advise jurors to avoid news coverage of the trial, rather than force the newspapers to conceal their front pages.

Wood compromised and allowed the newspaper to uncover their windows, but also ordered that the vending racks be relocated to another entrance during the trial. Wood allowed the papers to put up signs alerting customers that the racks had been temporarily moved.

A newsrack owned by the Greensboro News & Record was not affected by the order because the newpaper did not put the trial on the front page.

Although Johnson’s attorney, W. David Lloyd, did not dispute the decision, he maintained the windows should remain covered.

“Our client has his life on the line … their only interest is a commercial interest,” he told the Greensboro News & Record. “So, maybe they don’t sell as many papers.”

In the trial that prompted the action, a jury found Johnson guilty to accepting $150 from a woman to kill her husband. The woman was sentenced to death in October for planning the murder. Johnson faces life in prison or the death penalty.

(North Carolina v. Johnson; Media counsel: Craig Merritt, Christian Barton, Richmond, Va.) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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