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Media at Murder Trial Rebuked

Court: After hearing that two jurors were followed, the judge in Van Dam case threatens to ban cameras.

July 26, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The judge in the murder trial of David Westerfield angrily accused the media of being irresponsible Thursday, a repeat of early complaints that the jurist said could lead him to pull cameras from the courtroom.

After receiving a report that an unidentified person followed two jurors and wrote down their car license plates, Superior Court Judge William Mudd threatened to withdraw permission for television and newspaper cameras to be in the court.

The judge challenged journalists to keep their colleagues from attempting to discover the identity of jurors.

"This is serious," said Mudd. "I will not tolerate it.... If I have one more incident like that, I am cutting you off."

Westerfield is on trial in the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam.

Mudd, 57, appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1988, has promised jurors that their identities will never be known, a level of protection not extended even to most jurors in this city who have heard cases involving violent street gangs, media experts said.

On Wednesday, Mudd's ire had been raised when a freelance photographer working for a Web site tried to photograph Westerfield's 18-year-old son, Neal, as he left the courthouse.

"It is absolutely appalling to this court," Mudd said. "The scufflings--the stakeouts, if you will--remind me of the paparazzi for some important movie star."

Mudd had told photographers not to show the son's face during his time on the witness stand. The teenager testified that his father had downloaded the thousands of pornographic images found on his computer.

Mudd's relationship with the media has been a complicated one during the trial.

But he has allowed television and radio to broadcast the proceedings live--a first for a San Diego case.

But he has slapped a gag order on everyone connected to the trial, banished the media during many sessions in which the jurors are not present, and occasionally ordered that certain witnesses not be photographed.

In ruling that reporters could not accompany jurors when they inspected Westerfield's recreational vehicle, he said, "They have no need to see that."

Media attorney Guylyn Cummins has argued repeatedly that Mudd should allow greater media access to sessions involving motions filed by the attorneys and that reporters should be allowed to inspect search warrants.

Mudd has rejected most requests, and this week refused a request to call a recess to give the media attorney time to come to the court.

Mudd has also made a series of comments to jurors suggesting that the media are inaccurately reporting the trial--although the only example he has provided is that one television station misreported the number of years he and his wife have been married.

Before leaving on a week's vacation, Mudd repeated his admonition to jurors not to watch or read accounts of the trial and added that during his absence the coverage would probably be particularly inaccurate.

"If it isn't live," the judge told jurors, "they will contrive."

Several TV reporters quickly assured viewers that they would not try to find out the names of jurors. But other journalists called the practice a routine way to prepare for post-trial interviews--an effort to illuminate how the jury reached its verdict.

John Beatty, who retired last year after 33 years as a San Diego journalist, said he was surprised that Mudd "overreacted to such a common practice.... I'm not sure why he's so frustrated."

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