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Judge to Reconsider Limits on the Media

March 27, 2004|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — A Superior Court judge agreed Friday to consider an appeal by news organizations to his strict restrictions on media coverage of a grand jury that will hear evidence in the Michael Jackson case.

Clifford R. Anderson III, presiding Superior Court judge in Santa Barbara County, told lawyers representing media organizations to submit a list of proposed modifications to his order banning interviews or photographs of witnesses in the grand jury proceedings. He said he might make a decision by Thursday.

The grand jury, called by Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon to hear the prosecution's case involving allegations of child molestation against the pop star, will hear from a lengthy list of witnesses during the coming two weeks, according to sources close to the case. One early witness is expected to be the 14-year-old boy Jackson allegedly molested at his Neverland Ranch early last year. Jackson has denied the charges.

While grand jury proceedings are always secret, witnesses often discuss their views, treatment or feelings about a case after testifying, said Theodore J. Boutrous, who represents a coalition of major national news organizations, including The Times, seeking changes to the order.

Anderson's order, banning any communication with grand jurors or witnesses and blocking photographers from taking pictures of witnesses even on public streets, is overly broad and amounts to an injunction "against the world at large," according to an emergency appeal by Boutrous.

Boutrous asked Anderson to consider changing the language of his order to permit interviews and photographs in public places. He said a ban threatening to impose contempt of court charges went far beyond most orders on grand jury conduct.

"This degree of unusual secrecy can foster a sense in the public that something unusual is going on," said Boutrous, who promised Anderson he would have a proposed modified order ready for review Monday. Defense and prosecution lawyers will be free to comment, and then Anderson will take the issue under review.

Mark Geragos, the lead defense attorney for Jackson, opposed a gag order earlier in the case that bans comment from lawyers, but supported the order banning photographs or contact with witnesses. Boutrous "is really arguing for the right to badger people," Geragos told Anderson over a courtroom telephone hookup. The defense lawyer said he opposed modifications that would permit any interference with witnesses.

Outside the courtroom, Boutrous told reporters that too much grand jury secrecy could lead to grand jury abuses.

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