SANTA BARBARA — A judge ruled Friday that witnesses before the grand jury in the Michael Jackson case can talk to defense attorneys, as long as they do not disclose what happened during the grand jury proceedings.
The ruling by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Clifford R. Anderson allows attorneys to talk to witnesses about their knowledge of the case if the lawyers don't inquire about what the witnesses saw in the grand jury room or what questions they were asked and their answers.
The judge said he would decide later in the day how witnesses who had already testified before the grand jury would be notified that they were allowed to talk to defense attorneys.
Prosecutors charged Jackson in December with seven counts of committing lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under age 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent to the child.
The district attorney has since taken the case to a grand jury to seek an indictment. Jackson denies the charges.
Anderson rejected a request by news organizations for advance notice of court hearings involving the grand jury, such as a series of recent hearings on whether tapes made by Jackson private investigator Bradley Miller had to be handed over to prosecutors.
The judge said there was a "clash of rights" among the defendant, attorneys, grand jurors and the media. But he said the grand jury's right to investigate in secrecy outweighed the public's right to know about the proceedings.
During Friday's hearing, news media attorney Theodore Boutrous repeatedly criticized the secrecy surrounding the grand jury. He said many grand jury witnesses had been sneaked into the building where the grand jury was meeting, sometimes covered in blankets to hide their identities.
"The government is not supposed to smuggle people in and out of court," Boutrous said.
Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Gerald Franklin said such measures were necessary to protect the identities of witnesses.
Boutrous said witnesses should be allowed to come forward to address the media if they chose to and should be publicly identified if they could be seen outside the grand jury room.
Jackson attorney Benjamin Brafman said hearings involving Miller and other matters regarding the grand jury should remain secret for the time being to protect his client's rights.
Continuing the secrecy in the case, the judge cleared the courtroom after the two motions so he and the attorneys could discuss a third motion. The subject was not disclosed.