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Judge Lifts Gag Order in Hate Crime Case

October 31, 2000|CAITLIN LIU

Agreeing with a defense lawyer and the American Civil Liberties Union, a judge has reversed himself and lifted a gag order he had imposed in the case of Marie Elise West, the woman accused of the hate-crime murder of an elderly Latino man she had allegedly run down with her car.

"Any time a judge issues an order that prevents a party from speaking to the press, that raises serious 1st Amendment issues," said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney for ACLU of Southern California.

On Monday, prosecutors decided not to challenge the ruling by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael S. Luros lifting the order. "I don't think we have enough evidence to survive an appeal," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey, who had asked for the gag order because of "privileged" medical records involved in the case and fears that pretrial publicity could taint prospective jurors.

West, 35, allegedly ran her car over 65-year-old Jesus Plascencia in a Van Nuys parking lot Sept. 1. Authorities said witnesses heard her make comments about her hatred of Latinos. According to the district attorney's office, the Manhattan Beach woman is the first person in Los Angeles County to be charged with murder under a California hate-crime law, which carries a possible death penalty.

But West's attorney, Carl A. "Tony" Capozzola, said the woman, whom he says takes anti-psychotic medication, was "in the middle of a psychotic episode" at the time of the incident and previously had been hospitalized numerous times because of her mental illness.

"It's not a hate crime," Capozzola said. "My client is a victim of the inadequate outpatient-care system in California."

The gag order imposed Oct. 11 barred attorneys from speaking outside of court about West's case and related mental health issues. But after Eliasberg and Capozzola challenged the order as being unconstitutional, Luros changed his mind and sided with them.

In court, Luros echoed the ACLU's argument that the size of Los Angeles County's juror pool--7 million people--made it highly likely that an impartial jury can be found, according to attorneys who were there.

"Judges are issuing way more gag orders than are justifiable," Eliasberg said. "I don't think [prosecutors] should have asked for the gag order in the first place."

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