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Ventura County

Media Gag Sought in Triple-Slaying Trial

Court: Attorney for Socorro Caro, accused of killing three of her sons, wants to bar reporting of some testimony.

July 17, 2001|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With jury selection starting today for a mother accused in the slayings of three of her four young sons, her defense attorney has asked a judge to order sweeping restrictions on media coverage.

Representing Socorro "Cora" Caro, Assistant Public Defender Jean Farley on Monday requested that reporters be barred from using testimony that would signal the defense's strategy.

"I'm asking that the media refrain from detailing questions we'll be asking witnesses," she told Ventura County Superior Court Judge Donald D. Coleman, explaining that witnesses might alter their responses in court after learning about the trial from news accounts.

While expressing reservations about his authority to restrain the news media, Coleman asked Farley to cite cases that bolster her position. He did not set a date for a ruling.

Farley's unusual request reflects wider fears about the intense media attention the Caro trial is certain to attract. A veteran defense attorney, Farley said she has received as many as 30 phone calls in one day from newspapers and television news shows across the country. She said she no longer answers her office phone and plans to change her extension to keep distraction to a minimum as she prepares for trial.

Coleman said Monday that a Los Angeles TV station has asked to place its cameras in the courtroom--a prospect opposed both by Farley and prosecutor Jim Ellison.

"It has an effect on witnesses and their demeanor in a more significant way than still photographs," Ellison said.

While the dramatic elements of the Caro domestic tragedy may attract viewers, they also could make it difficult to select jurors. Court officials have said they expect to summon as many as 750 prospective jurors before attorneys agree on the 12 who will decide the fate of the 44-year-old woman accused of fatally shooting her sons Joseph, 11, Michael, 7, and Christopher, 5.

According to investigators, the children were shot as they slept in the family's million-dollar Mediterranean villa in the Santa Rosa Valley. After their deaths on the night of Nov. 22, 1999, Caro shot herself in the head, police reported. A fourth son, Gabriel, now 3, was unharmed.

At her preliminary hearing, Caro's marriage was depicted as failing. Her husband of 13 years, Xavier, a rheumatologist with a practice in Northridge, was described by Cora Caro's mother as abusive. He has denied that accusation and has filed for divorce.

The defendant's attorneys last year said she suffered from severe depression and has no memory of the night her sons were killed.

The trial could take three to four months. Caro has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges, for which Ventura County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

On Monday, Farley declined to elaborate how witnesses might change their testimony if exposed to articles or broadcasts about the trial.

However, she called herself "a big believer in the 1st Amendment," which guarantees freedom of the press.

Lawyers specializing in 1st Amendment cases were skeptical that any judge would keep journalists from using statements given in open court.

" 'Astounding' and 'bizarre' are the two words that come to mind immediately," said Los Angeles attorney Douglas Mirell. "The 1st Amendment categorically precludes the press from being told what they can or cannot print in advance of publication. It's an established, fundamental, bedrock principle, from the Pentagon Papers, backward and forwards."

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