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Texas judge limits media coverage of murder trial

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  1. Prior Restraint
A Texas district judge unhappy about media coverage has loosened -- but not completely eliminated -- a court order that…

A Texas district judge unhappy about media coverage has loosened — but not completely eliminated — a court order that severely limited news gathering in a murder trial in Fort Worth after a newspaper requested her to reconsider.

The order was revised at a Monday hearing requested by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to reconsider the restrictions Tarrant County District Judge Elizabeth Berry put in place on Friday, which included not allowing the media to report on any court proceedings unless the jury was present. The initial court order led the newspaper to remove a number of blog posts and tweets that already were published.

The new order states that any open court occurrence may be reported, regardless of whether the jury is present. Though the restrictions have been reduced, the judge's rules still raises some concerns.

“I believe that it’s still far wider than any gag order that I’ve ever seen,” said Dianna Hunt, a reporter for the Star-Telegram who was covering the murder trial of Kwame Rockwell, the accused triggerman in a March 2010 robbery. Berry is a former Tarrant County judge who was subbing in for another judge who fell ill.

According to the revised order, media interviews are not allowed in courtrooms, hallways or areas surrounding Criminal District Court No. 4, where the trial is being held, but are allowed in other areas of the courthouse. The order also states that media interviews of attorneys, witnesses, victims or family members of victims or the defendant are not allowed until the conclusion of the trial, unless permitted by the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

Hunt said the order was issued following the trial lunch break on Jan. 6, three days after the trial began.

“She didn’t make any comments about [the order] and distributed it through the bailiff,” Hunt said.

When court resumed on Monday, Berry said that she issued the order because she was upset by a story published by the Star-Telegram on Dec. 31 that included comments from one victim’s mother, as well as coverage by the broadcast media, according to Jim Witt, executive editor of the Star-Telegram.

“(The order) restricted us from reporting any act that went on in the courtroom outside of what was presented to the jury,” Witt said . “It restricted us from talking to anybody in the courthouse. It restricted us from talking to any witness, potential witness, attorney or District Attorney or family member of any of the witnesses, or even other cases they were handling not related to this case. It was a pretty sweeping order.”

Witt added that if judges have restrictions, they are normally discussed before the trial and mostly concern pre-trial publicity.

Tom Williams, attorney for the Star-Telegram, also said the judge's order was concerning because it was all encompassing.

“The original order seemed to be of such a nature and of such broad language that it seemed to restrict anything not in front of the jury,” Williams said. “It would include anything — it could potentially include anything. For example, testimony presented in open court, but not in front of the jury, or ordinary discussions about scheduling.”

On Williams’ advice, the Star-Telegram removed several blog posts and tweets Friday that may have violated the order, according to Witt.

“I had posted and tweeted some things that had happened outside the jury, including the judge’s ruling and a time when she had admonished the lawyers,” Hunt said. “There had also been some testimony in open court without the jury present.”

The posts were republished after the new court order was issued.

Berry could not be reached for comment.