A judge Thursday upheld her order barring the Los Angeles Times from publishing images of a man accused of killing four people —- including three members of the same family — after a photographer shot several dozen pictures that the court had granted him permission to take.
The ruling by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Hilleri G. Merritt came during a hearing in which The Times asked the judge to vacate a decision she made Wednesday, saying the order constituted a prior restraint on publication in clear violation of the 1st Amendment.
Attorneys for The Times said they planned to immediately file a writ appealing the judge's ruling.
Jeff Glasser, an attorney representing The Times, argued that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the California Court of Appeal has ever upheld a prior restraint even when faced with imperatives such as national security, or a competing interest such as the right to a fair trial.
He noted that pictures of defendant Alberd Tersargyan had aired on television and the Internet.
The judge said she was concerned about issues surrounding the ability of witnesses to identify a suspect in the case.
Merritt said that although images of Tersargyan had been made public, pictures showing him wearing a prison jumpsuit in the cage-like lockup area of her courtroom could be more prejudicial to potential witnesses.
Tersargyan, who is awaiting a trial in the killing of a woman in Los Angeles' 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 a fatal sniper-style attack this year on a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard.
Before Tersargyan's arraignment Wednesday, Merritt had approved a written request by Times photographer Al Seib to take pictures of the suspect. Seib notified the court bailiff, the clerk and a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Deputy Public Defender Vienna Nguyen said that before the hearing got underway, she informed Seib about a prior order not to photograph the defendant but did not tell the judge.
During the hearing and after Seib had already begun photographing Tersargyan, Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Harmon reminded the judge about the prior order. Asked about it by Merritt, Harmon said it was possible the pictures could affect witnesses' testimony.
But Harmon also told the judge he did not believe publishing the pictures would prejudice witnesses — a point he reiterated Thursday.
Even so, Merritt said she believed the 6th Amendment right to a fair trial won out.
"My job is to balance many interests," Merritt said. "There are bells that cannot be unrung."