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Reporter barred from courtroom wins right to stay

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Apr 25, 2000    

Reporter barred from courtroom wins right to stay

  • A Los Angeles Times reporter was barred from a criminal trial of prison guards because he had been subpoenaed to appear as a witness, but the judge found that his presence would not affect the defendants’ fair trial rights.

A federal judge in Fresno has ruled that a reporter covering a trial could stay in the courtroom to report on the proceedings even though he had been listed as a possible witness by the defendants.

Federal District Judge Anthony Ishii on April 19 had barred Los Angeles Times reporter Mark Arax from staying in the courtroom following the defense’s April 18 subpoena of Arax as a possible witness in the trial of eight prison guards who are being tried on charges that they had orchestrated fights between the inmates they were supervising. The defense also subpoenaed Fresno Bee reporter Pam Podger, but she is not covering the trial.

After Arax and the Times were given an opportunity to argue their case at a hearing that lasted less than one hour, Ishii reversed his earlier ruling and allowed Arax to stay in the courtroom. Ishii specifically exempted Arax from the standing order barring all potential witnesses from attending other parts of the trial, according to an attorney for the Times.

Arax and the Times plan to also fight the subpoena against Arax at a May 15 hearing scheduled on the matter.

The newspaper argued at the hearing that Arax had a First Amendment right to stay in the courtroom in his role as a reporter because he was the only Times reporter working in the Central Valley where Fresno is located and because general constitutional considerations outweighed the general rule that potential witnesses can be barred from hearing argument and other evidence in the case. Ishii ruled that the defendants’ constitutional right to obtain a fair trial would not be harmed by Arax’s exercise of his First Amendment right.

Arax broke the story about the prison fights in 1996. His reporting included quotes from prison guard whistle-blowers who are scheduled to testify against the defendants.

An attorney for the defendants told the Associated Press that they subpoenaed Arax and Podger to testify about the facts contained in their stories, including the interviews, in the event that the whistle-blowers offer testimony that differs from what they said in 1996.

(U.S. v. Martin; Media Counsel: Bruce Owdom, Fresno)


© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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