A judge issued an unusual order Wednesday in which she told a newspaper photographer not to publish pictures after granting him permission to take them.
Legal experts said prohibiting publication of an image that a photographer had permission to take could violate the 1st Amendment.
The case involved Alberd Tersargyan, 60, who was in court for a scheduled arraignment on multiple murder counts in connection with the slayings of four people — including three members of the same family — from 2008 to 2010.
Judge Hilleri G. Merritt approved a written request by Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib before the arraignment to take pictures of Tersargyan.
But during the hearing — after Seib had already begun photographing Tersargyan — Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Harmon reminded the judge about a prior order banning photography and video.
Harmon said it was possible the pictures could affect potential eyewitness testimony but didn't object to the photographs.
Deputy Public Defender Patricia Mulligan told Merritt she objected to having her client photographed.
Merritt chastised both sides for not raising the issue earlier but then told Seib to immediately stop taking pictures and ordered him not to publish the images he had already taken.
Merritt would not comment on whether the ruling amounted to a prior restraint of the press in violation of the 1st Amendment.
"The record clearly reflects concerns expressed by Judge Merritt in the balance between a fair trial and free press issues," said Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini.
But Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said there was no legal reason why the judge should not have allowed the pictures to be published absent a demonstration of "direct, immediate, physical harm that is not speculative."
"The judge has the ability at any time to order the photographer out of the courtroom," Dalglish said. "What the judge does not have the ability to do, based on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, is bar the photographer from publishing the information he lawfully collected."
"The U.S. Supreme Court has never, ever, not once, upheld a prior restraint on publication," Dalglish noted.
Tersargyan, who is awaiting trial in the killing of a woman in L.A.'s Little Armenia neighborhood in March, was charged Tuesday with the 2008 slaying of the woman's husband and 8-year-old daughter, as well as the fatal, sniper-styled attack on a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard this year.