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Sealing of records upheld in Jackson sex abuse case

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   April 29, 2005


Sealing of records upheld in Jackson sex abuse case

  • The California Court of Appeal cited Michael Jackson’s celebrity status, the nature of his alleged crimes and the need to protect an ongoing investigation as sufficient justification for sealing the search warrant affidavit and other documents.

April 29, 2005  ·   Michael Jackson’s celebrity status partially justified a trial judge’s order to seal a search warrant affidavit, grand jury transcript and other court documents to avoid tainting potential jurors in the pop star’s child sexual abuse case, a California appellate court ruled Wednesday.

The California Court of Appeal in Ventura struck down a challenge filed in July by NBC and nine other media groups, claiming Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville failed to follow proper procedure in sealing various court documents in the Jackson case. The media coalition, which also includes the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Associated Press, had argued there is no “celebrity exception” to the First Amendment.

But Melville “carefully balanced the defendant’s right to a fair trial and the public’s right to know,” the appeals court concluded in its April 27 decision. It upheld the sealing orders for all documents except Jackson’s indictment, which it said should be released with the names of Jackson’s alleged co-conspirators redacted.

“We are pleased that the court ruled in our favor on the indictment but extremely disappointed that the court did not strike down the manifestly unconstitutional procedures that the trial court applied to seal massive quantities of important judicial records that remain hidden from public view to this day,” attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who represents the media coalition, said in an e-mail response. “These procedures reversed the presumption of openness and created a presumption of secrecy.”

Boutrous said they are “evaluating our options for challenging these rulings,” and will decide in the next few days whether to appeal.

Jackson, who is charged with plying a 13-year-old boy with alcohol and sexually molesting him, is currently on trial in Santa Maria, Calif. Many of the documents at issue, including the grand jury transcript and the indictment, have been made public, prompting the appellate court to ask Boutrous why the appeal wasn’t moot. He responded “that an opinion that considers the appeal at the time the motions to unseal were made would establish useful precedent,” according to the court.

“We therefore journey in an imaginary judicial time machine to last year,” presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote for the court. “We temporarily disarm our powers of hindsight so that our perception of events at the time the motions [to unseal] were made will not be distorted.”

The court, which noted its difficulty in shielding itself from news of Jackson’s case, said it was “unlikely” that potential jurors would not be influenced by exposure to details of the alleged crimes. The need to safeguard not only the privacy of the minors involved, but also Jackson’s right to a fair trial and the government’s then-ongoing investigation, all justified the orders to seal, the court held.

It rejected the media’s comparison to the Martha Stewart case, in which a federal appeals court held in 2004 that barring the media from attending jury selection violated the First Amendment.

“The difference between giving false information in a stock trading investigation and allegedly molesting a child is self-evident,” the California court said.

Police searched Jackson’s Neverland ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., in November 2003. Melville sealed the executed warrant, the inventory of seized items, and the supporting affidavit until Jackson’s arraignment — even though under California law, such records usually become public 10 days after the search. NBC moved in January 2004 to unseal the search warrant documents.

When Jackson was arraigned on Jan. 16, 2004, Melville heard the media’s motion to unseal. He later found that the “privacy of the minors involved” and the need to avoid tainting the jury pool justified sealing the entire 82-page search warrant affidavit except some “general introductory material.” In February 2004, the court released heavily redacted versions of the warrant and inventory, as well as the “general introductory material” from the affidavit.

In April 2004, a grand jury returned a 10-count felony indictment against Jackson, who is also charged with conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. His trial began Jan. 31 and is expected to continue at least until June.

(People v. Jackson; Media Counsel: Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Los Angeles)KK

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