By: M.L. Stein
AS THE LOS Angeles media geared up for a full-blown court battle, a judge backed down from his extraordinary order ousting reporters from a murder trial when they refused to black out opening statements by the prosecution.
But Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith, a former police officer, insisted he had made a correct decision at the opening of the trial of three men charged with the murder of Haing S. Ngor, 55, a Cambodian-born doctor who won an Oscar playing a Khmer Rouge victim in the movie The Killing Fields.
He was brutally murdered in an apparent robbery attempt in February 1996.
Three separate juries will hear the cases against Tak Sun Tan, 21; Indra Lim, 20; and Jason Chan, 20.
On Feb. 23, Smith issued an unusual order that the press withhold reporting of opening statements to two of the juries but not the third. Testimony will be heard simultaneously by the separate juries, except for the opening statements and closing arguments. The judge refused to explain his order and to provide a written copy. Deputy Assistant District Attorney Craig Lum said he assumed Smith sought to prevent any reporting of material not intended for all three juries.
Reporters walked out of the courtroom rather than comply with the order.
The next day Smith reversed himself and gave the media transcripts of the opening statements.
AP correspondent Linda Deutsch reported that Smith, at the same time, defended his previous action, noting that the two opening statements were almost identical to the one he permitted to be covered. But prosecutors omitted sensitive information he didn’t want the third jury to hear.
In a speech to the juries, the judge said: “There’s no use having a trial if we don’t live by the law. Yesterday, in front of jurors, the court removed some people from the press.”
He said he did it with an “abundance of caution. In front of the jury, I’ll apologize for it . . . . I made the ruling and I stand by it.”
Deutsch said the judge was concerned by the fact that some of the accused have implicated their co-defendants and he wanted to shield jurors from such statements.
First Amendment lawyers were stunned by the blackout and predicted it would would not stand up on appeal.
When Smith first issued his blackout ultimatum, media attorney Kelli Sager, who was representing the Associated Press and other news organizations, sought a hearing on the ouster but was rebuffed by court staff.
Another First Amendment specialist, Douglas Mirell, termed Smith’s order “outrageous and patently unconstitutional,” adding, “I would be shocked if the Court of Appeal did anything other than immediately reverse that ruling.”
?(E&P Web Site:http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 7,1998)