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Newspaper wins right to attend execution

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  1. Prior Restraint
Newspaper wins right to attend execution01/29/96 CALIFORNIA--The Marin County Superior Court granted a temporary order allowing the San Francisco Examiner…

Newspaper wins right to attend execution


CALIFORNIA–The Marin County Superior Court granted a temporary order allowing the San Francisco Examiner to attend the execution of death row inmate William Kirkpatrick at San Quentin State Prison. A hearing to consider making the order permanent has not yet been scheduled.

Judge Terrance Boren issued a temporary restraining order in mid- January that supersedes the California Department of Correction’s media selection process, adding the Examiner to the 16 news organizations allowed to witness the death. The Examiner contends that since it is the only afternoon newspaper in the Bay Area, its presence is essential for providing an eye-witness account that same day.

Judge Boren will reconsider his decision, however, in a hearing on a preliminary injunction. The state said it will argue that the exclusion does not violate the newspaper’s rights. Because the execution has been postponed, no date has been set for the hearing.

The Department of Corrections announced its determination of which media witnesses could attend the execution, which has a limited viewing-area capacity, in early January. Among those selected were four newspapers representing the state’s largest metropolitan areas, the Associated Press, United Press International, four television stations and four radio stations. In a random drawing, two more newspapers with circulations over 100,000 were chosen, each representing northern and southern California. Those selected will be expected to pool their coverage with the excluded papers. Although the Examiner was in the drawing, it was not selected.

The Examiner, which says it has had a reporter attend every execution in the state of California since 1898, believes that because it can provide same-day eye-witness coverage for the Bay Area, it should be the exception to the state’s rule. The paper asserts that as of 1990, it was listed in an internal memo by the department itself as a priority witness to any San Quentin execution. However, it was banned for the first time from attending the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris, at a time when it changed its editorial position to oppose the death penalty.

The newspaper sued the state successfully and was awarded the right to attend the Harris execution, after arguing that exclusion would violate its First Amendment rights as well as thwart the public interest in same-day coverage.

The California Society of Newspaper Editors (CSNE), in support of the Examiner, has submitted a proposal to the Department of Corrections that would allot a category for a PM cycle or non-daily paper in the selection of media witnesses. They argue that the news media, not the state, should have the right to determine which media representatives can attend an execution.

However, the department has not yet approved the proposal, maintaining its selection process is fair and in the best interest of the people of California. (San Francisco Examiner v. California Department of Corrections; Media Counsel: Roger Myers)