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Justices to Study Pretrial Rights of Media, Public

October 15, 1985|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, acting in a Southern California case, agreed today to decide whether the right of the public and news media to attend criminal trials over a defendant's objection applies to pretrial hearings.

The court said it will hear arguments that news reporters and others were wrongly excluded from a 41-day pretrial hearing for a male nurse later convicted of killing 12 hospital patients in 1981.

The closed hearings conducted in the case of Robert Rubane Diaz were challenged by the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the newspaper whose court fight led to the Supreme Court's ruling last year that the public and news media have a right to attend jury selection proceedings in criminal trials.

The court in 1980 ruled for the first time that the public and the news media have a constitutional right to attend criminal trials. The court said judges may conduct trials, or portions of them, in secret only as a last resort to ensure fairness and only after telling why such steps are necessary.

The 1980 and 1984 rulings were based on the traditional openness of criminal trials and the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Left Unanswered in 1979

In 1979, the justices had ruled that a defendant's right to an open trial--guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment--does not give the public and the press any right to attend pretrial proceedings. The court left unanswered whether there exists any First Amendment right to attend pretrial hearings.

Diaz was convicted of murdering 11 patients at the Community Hospital of the Valleys in Perris, Calif., and one patient at San Gorgonio Pass Memorial Hospital in Banning, Calif.

Prosecutors said he gave the patients massive doses of a heart drug, lidocaine.

The presiding state judge conducted the 41-day preliminary hearing in secrecy after being asked to do so by Diaz's lawyer.

Transcripts of the hearing were sealed for many months, until Diaz was convicted and sentenced to die in the state's gas chamber.

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