The California Court of Appeal ordered a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Monday to abandon her order barring the Los Angeles Times from publishing images of a man accused of a quadruple homicide or show a compelling reason by Tuesday why the images should not be printed.
Judge Hilleri G. Merritt allowed — then barred — L.A. Times photographer Al Seib from publishing several dozen images taken of defendant Alberd Tersargyan.
Jeff Glasser, an attorney representing The Times, argued in a hearing last week 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 also noted that images of Tersargyan had already been shown on television news broadcasts and on the Internet.
Despite decades of 1st Amendment precedent barring prior restraints, Merritt said she was concerned about issues involving the ability of witnesses to identify a suspect in the case, interfering with the defendant's right to a fair trial.
Although images of Tersargyan had been made public, pictures showing him wearing a jail jumpsuit in the cage-like lockup area of her courtroom could be more prejudicial to potential witnesses, Merritt said.
Tersargyan is awaiting a trial in the killing of a woman in Los Angeles' Little Armenia neighborhood in March. He was charged last week 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, 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.
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.
Harmon told the judge it was possible the pictures could affect witnesses' testimony but also said he did not believe publishing the pictures would prejudice witnesses.
Tersargyan's defense counsel argued that the pictures could prejudice witnesses although they did not provide concrete examples of the potential harm.
Allan Parachini, a spokesman for the L.A. County Superior Court, said no immediate decision had been made in response to the appeal's court's order.