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Public Excluded From Judge's Pretrial Hearing

A jurist decides that airing potential evidence might make it impossible to find a fair jury. Two newspapers protest the ruling.

August 16, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Hoping to suppress publicity about potential evidence in a trial expected to start Monday, a Santa Barbara County judge arrested on drunk driving charges and accused of pulling a gun on her domestic partner succeeded in excluding the public from a pretrial hearing Friday on the grounds that an open hearing could hurt her chances of a fair trial.

Superior Court Judge Diana R. Hall was charged with two felonies and four misdemeanors last December after a drunken confrontation with her domestic partner, Deidra Dykeman, that allegedly included brandishing a gun and preventing Dykeman from making a 911 call to the Sheriff's Department.

Hall was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and handcuffed near her Santa Ynez Valley home after driving away from her house. Dykeman told deputies that Hall had pulled her hair and threatened to shoot one of their two dogs during the Dec. 21 quarrel.

After her arrest, Hall's case was assigned to Judge Carol Koppel-Claypool, a San Bernardino County jurist, to avoid conflict with local judges. Hall was ordered to stand trial on the criminal charges after an April 2 preliminary hearing led Koppel-Claypool to conclude that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

A gag order was imposed early in the case and Hall's trial was shifted from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara, where Hall is not as well known. Koppel-Claypool agreed with Hall's lawyer that a public airing of some of the potential evidence might make it impossible to find a fair jury, even in Santa Barbara.

The ruling, which includes a ban on reporters in the courtroom, was immediately protested by lawyers for both The Times and the Santa Barbara News-Press. Both cited constitutional rulings and California court rules, saying all pretrial court proceedings should be kept open unless there is overwhelming evidence that publicity could deprive Hall of a fair trial.

Noting that Hall remains a Santa Barbara County judge, attorney Susan E. Seager, representing The Times, said the public has a special need in this case to see "that all proceedings are conducted in a fair manner." She said Hall's prominence should "not automatically trump" the public's right.

During April's preliminary hearing, Assistant Dist. Atty. Kimberly Smith drew testimony from Dykeman that Hall had tried to keep secret their four-year relationship, although they had bought a house together. She said Hall often introduced her as her gardener or housekeeper and sometimes as her dog walker.

Because the courtroom was closed and the gag order in force, attorneys would not disclose what issues were discussed Friday or how the judge had ruled on the other judge's case. When asked if he thought that the courtroom secrecy could lead some to believe that Hall was receiving special protection because she is a judge, defense lawyer Jack Earley replied: "No. This happens all the time."

In a letter urging Koppel-Claypool to hold all future proceedings in public, Seager disagreed, saying that court rules specifically preclude secrecy under such circumstances.

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