HOUSTON News media coverage of two high-profile murder cases is being restricted by the Harris County judges presiding over them, prompting some legal experts to worry about the public's access to the criminal justice system.
Media lawyer John Edwards said the public should be concerned about gag orders.
"If the media is cut off, the public is cut off," Edwards said in today's editions of the Houston Chronicle.
The two separate orders were issued Nov. 18 by state District Judge Jeannine Barr and state District Judge Carol Davies.
Barr imposed a gag order on jurors, attorneys and court employees after she postponed the punishment phase of convicted killer Tomas Gallo's trial until Jan. 16.
Gallo, 27, was found guilty last week of capital murder in the slaying of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter. The jury was to begin considering his sentence yesterday.
Davies' order for yesterday's pretrial hearing in the case of a Friendswood dentist accused of killing her husband with car is more sweeping.
Reporters are banned from interviewing anyone connected to the case while inside the Criminal Justice Center, where her courtroom is located.
The order also seems to ban a sketch artist from the courtroom and prohibits reporters from interviewing jurors even after the final verdict.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals consistently has upheld the First Amendment's freedom of the press in similar circumstances and has ruled that trial court rulings denying journalists the right to conduct post-verdict juror interviews are unconstitutional.
"The order is overly broad, and it's unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of the press," said Joe Larsen, the Chronicle's attorney, who successfully sought yesterday to modify parts of the order.
Davies defended her order, saying that she generally issues such orders to maintain decorum in the court and ensure a fair trial.
Barr declined to discuss her order.
Edwards said Davies should have designated areas within the court building where interviews could be conducted rather than banning them.
His firm, Jackson Walker L.L.P., won modifications to a media order during the trial of Andrea Yates, who was convicted of capital murder this year for drowning her children in the family's bathtub.
Bill Ogden, who represented the Chronicle in an unsuccessful bid to throw out the gag order in the Yates case, said gag orders in general restrict newsgathering.
"If you can't gather the news from the participants in the trial, you can't report accurately about the trial to the public," Ogden said. "The only thing that can be reported is speculation by people not involved."
Ogden and the others agree that judges have authority to protect defendants' rights and preserve order. But he said this week's orders are overly broad.
"Maybe there's a good reason for it, but the point is the government has to show there is a good reason," he said. "If you are a reporter, a witness, a lawyer, a defendant or a reader, if the government tells you to shut up, it should offend."