Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Order in the court

Editors from the various competing news outlets in Monterey County don't generally hang out much together. We're cordial when we happen to bump into one another, and we might swap stories about our latest headaches. Or tell small lies about how well we're all doing.

But several of us had occasion recently to come together to consider strategies against a potential threat to our ability to gather news on behalf of our readers and viewers. The situation played out in the Monterey County courts last week when the defense attorney representing Jesse John Crow convinced a judge to rule, at a single court appearance, that no image of Crow be broadcast or published that shows him in his jail-issue orange-and-white striped jumpsuit. The attorney, Tom Worthington, believes that Crow would not be able to get a fair trial if jurors have seen Crow dressed like an inmate.

Crow is being held in Monterey County Jail on a homicide charge in connection to the death of his young wife, Ryann.

The local media professionals were alarmed by the ruling, but we are also aware that, according to the rules of the court, a judge has discretion in such matters. We were worried that the order would carry through to all of Crow's court appearances, so three of us, including Lawton Dodd of KSBW and Anjanette Delgado of the Californian, showed up in court a few days later to voice our concerns.

While we knew that a judge indeed has discretion in limiting photographic depictions within a courtroom, we also suspected that Worthington might throw new kinks into the works.

Just days earlier, Worthington had asked a Santa Cruz County judge to prohibit media from using photographs and images of suspects he represents in another homicide case, photographs that had already been obtained during previous appearances of the suspects in court. The Herald's sister paper in Santa Cruz, The Sentinel, challenged that motion, and a Santa Cruz judge rightfully ruled that Worthington was seeking an unconstitutional prior restraint on the press.

Fortunately, the issue also played out favorably in Monterey County Court. The issue of depicting Crow in his jail garb became moot when Judge Russell Scott ruled that the defendant could dress in "civilian" clothing during all of his court appearances, so that all future images of Crow in court will depict him in a sports coat. Also, Worthington did not ask the judge to bar the publication or airing of images of Crow obtained legally by the media, including the defendant's booking mug shot or the now-familiar video captured by KSBW showing Crow throwing stuff into a dumpster at his house before he was arrested.

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