By: Linda Deutsch, AP Special Correspondent
(AP) Intense interest in the Michael Jackson child molestation case led the judge to seal more information from the public and the press Thursday, saying he wanted to avoid media reporting and analysis of evidence.
Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville released dozens of search-warrant request forms showing that extensive searches being conducted by authorities in the case have spread across the country and involve numerous banks, department stores, cellular telephone services and an Internet service.
But the forms did not identify whose accounts were being searched, what was being sought or what was found.
In a written legal opinion, Melville said he was concerned that anything he revealed would be analyzed and reported by the media and would make it difficult to find an unbiased jury pool in the case.
“The intensity of the media coverage in this case is high,” said Melville. “Each court hearing is thoroughly reported and exhaustively analyzed by the media. It is substantially probable that if the evidence and testimony expected to be given at trial were to be released pretrial, it would be similarly reported and analyzed.”
Attorney Theodore Boutrous, who is representing a coalition of news organizations including The Associated Press, said the judge’s rulings on secrecy are counter to legal precedents.
“The Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that intense media scrutiny and public interest is not a sufficient ground for keeping judicial proceedings secret,” said Boutrous.
Melville also indicated he wants to keep secret all evidence until he rules whether or not it is admissible at trial, saying it’s necessary to prevent potential jurors from hearing evidence through the media that shouldn’t enter into the case.
“In this case, protection of the parties’ right to a fair trial and full opportunity to investigate the facts overcomes the right of public access to the record,” the judge said.
Jackson, 45, has pleaded not guilty to committing a lewd act upon a child, administering alcohol, and conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
The banks and phone companies in the search warrant request forms had corporate headquarters in states including New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Texas and South Dakota.
Melville said the actual search warrants contain summaries of evidence in the case, names of the persons involved and may include private phone numbers. He said they could not be meaningfully edited for release.
As for the search warrant “returns,” which itemize what was found, he said he would release only “a report of the number of pages of material provided to the sheriff.”