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Appeals panel delays decision on order to not publish suspect's photos

Judges appear to reject suggestions by a public defender that an L.A. Times photographer had illegally obtained photos of Alberd Tersargyan, who allegedly killed four people.

August 11, 2010|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

The California Court of Appeal on Tuesday put off a decision for at least another week on whether a judge's order barring the Los Angeles Times from publishing pictures of a quadruple-murder suspect constituted a prior restraint.

But the three-judge panel appeared to reject suggestions by Head Deputy Public Defender Albert J. Manaster that Times photographer Al Seib had acted in an illegal or improper way in obtaining the photos and therefore the paper shouldn't be allowed to publish them.

In fact, the judges pointed to court transcripts that showed the photographer had received permission from Superior Court Judge Hilleri J. Merritt before he began taking pictures of Alberd Tersargyan, who is accused of killing three members of a family as well as a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard.

Merritt withdrew her permission and ordered that The Times not publish the photos after Tersargyan's public defender said the publication of pictures could jeopardize his ability to get a fair trial.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Department released a mug shot of Tersargyan — identified as Tersargsyan in some law enforcement records. Police asked that anyone with information about him or the slayings contact detectives.

At the appeals court hearing, Manaster argued that a deputy public defender told Seib not to take pictures before Tersargyan's court hearing, warning him that a previous court order by a different judge had prohibited any photos. Manaster said taking the pictures constituted unlawful action that meant "the information can be banned." Merritt, however, has confirmed that she gave Seib permission to take the photos before he did so, according to court transcripts.

Appellate Court Justice Sandy R. Kriegler noted that the public defender representing Tersargyan didn't voice concern about the photographer to the judge until after the prosecutor in the case told the judge about the previous court order.

"It's hard to complain when your lawyer didn't advocate it," Kriegler said.

But Kriegler also raised questions about the legitimacy of Merritt's order granting Seib permission to photograph the hearing, noting that the judge did not check a box on the standard media permission form confirming her approval.

Kelli Sager, the attorney representing The Times, noted that every day that passed with a prior restraint, in this case six days and counting, compounded the damage.

She said that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the California Court of Appeal had ever upheld a prior restraint even when faced with compelling issues such as national security, or a competing interest such as the right to a fair trial. Sager also noted that other pictures of Tersargyan had already been published by half a dozen news outlets, including The Times.

Although images of Tersargyan had been made public, Merritt ruled that the pictures showing him wearing jail attire in the cage-like lockup area of her courtroom could be more prejudicial to potential witnesses.

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