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Judges Dim the Media Spotlight

Seeking to keep high-profile trials under control, jurists often restrict access to data. But the strategy leaves the public in the dark.

March 22, 2004|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

In plain sight on a Saturday afternoon, sheriff's deputies from two counties away swarmed a stately home in Calabasas. They served a warrant on the occupant and searched the premises. Wide-eyed neighbors looked on.

Weeks later, however, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department still would not confirm that it had raided the home, or even that the search had taken place. Were the neighbors hallucinating?

"I just can't talk about it," sheriff's spokesman Chris Pappas said.

News organizations reported that the Santa Barbara department conducted the search, but they quoted anonymous or secondhand sources. A judge had sealed the warrant, the official record of what went on.

The reason for the covert treatment: The Calabasas operation concerned a celebrity case: the prosecution of pop star Michael Jackson on child molestation charges.

Secrecy has become common in A-list court proceedings. When a headliner lands in the dock, the government is increasingly restricting access to legal documents and hearings and imposing gag orders to silence lawyers and investigators.

Open courts and public scrutiny of the justice system are cornerstones of American democracy. But judges say the hush-hush measures are sometimes necessary to prevent news coverage from influencing the jury and thus damaging the prospects of a fair trial.

"It's a balancing," said David Horwitz, a recently retired judge who helped set access rules for the Los Angeles Superior Court during his 22 years on the bench. "Some judges believe that by issuing gag orders, by sealing documents, you preserve the information for the courtroom and the trial."

Prosecutors and defense lawyers often agree.

"It's partly because of a very substantial increase in the amount of coverage," said E. Michael McCann, district attorney for Milwaukee County, Wis., who prosecuted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 1992. He pointed to a boom in gavel-to-gavel trial reporting by cable outlets such as Court TV.

"There seems to be an insatiable appetite for these trials," McCann said. "Trial by jury is not entertainment."

Jack Earley, president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an association of defense lawyers, said: "In some cases, there is an interest in not having everything going out to the public."

The curtain-lowering trend has stung 1st Amendment advocates, who trace it to an anti-media backlash after the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995. They say that secrecy might have contributed to jury problems in high-profile trials, and that numerous appellate court decisions have reaffirmed openness in prosecutions not involving national security.

Those precedents hold that a watchful public is crucial to the competent and impartial administration of justice. But the precedents are being tested again and again in lower courts caught in the spotlight's glare -- high-interest cases like those involving Jackson, Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant and the suddenly famous Scott Peterson, the Modesto fertilizer salesman charged with killing his wife, Laci, and the unborn son she was carrying.

"Despite the case law, it is becoming virtually routine to keep information from the public," said Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition.

He noted that a search warrant typically is available for anyone's inspection no later than 10 days after the search, along with a sworn affidavit from investigators and an inventory of any evidence collected.

The affidavit spells out what the authorities sought in the search and why. Disclosure is supposed to ensure that the government doesn't invade private domains willy-nilly or confiscate property without the court's permission.

That transparency has turned opaque in People vs. Jackson. Every warrant in the probe, going back to the November search of Jackson's Neverland ranch in Santa Barbara County, has been sealed or released only after heavy editing.

And the clock can run for years. Two key warrants from a 1993 investigation of Jackson on similar allegations apparently remain unrevealed to this day. The warrants are so old that the Los Angeles Superior Court, in clearing the yellowing clutter from its files, destroyed them.

Francke says he believes such tactics don't rile the public because of a sense that the media provide more than enough coverage of celebrity cases.

"People aren't starved for information about Michael Jackson's plight," he noted.

Search warrants also have been sealed in the rape case against Laker basketball player Bryant and the murder prosecution of Peterson.

Faith in Juries

"It seems to be a reflex action," said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which battles to unseal court documents in cases big and small. "We tend to have more faith in juries, and believe they can follow instructions and base their decisions on what they hear in court."

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