Banning media impedes suspects’ right to fair trial

Freedom Newspapers

High-profile murder trials by their very nature attract a great deal of attention and interest in a community that has been touched by a heinous crime.
Add the murder of children to these types of cases and the sensitivities surrounding these legal proceedings come into clearer focus. We understand and respect that appropriate care and consideration must be demonstrated by a judge in managing these sort of cases.
There is no question that upcoming trials of a Texas couple accused of murdering their three young children is one such case. But having said that, we must state our disappointment and opposition to the actions of state District Judge Robert Garza in banning the news media from a pre-trial hearing involving John Allen Rubio, one of the two defendants.
Garza recently banned the media from covering a hearing in the case, citing no real reason for doing so. Garza’s ruling has drawn outrage from some Texas lawyers who specialize in media law, and even puzzlement from one of the judge’s colleagues at the Hidalgo County Courthouse.
“Garza is completely out of line,” said Houston lawyer Joseph Larsen, a consulting attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “What (Garza) is doing is illegal.
“It is against the Constitution and against the common law of American jurisprudence,” Larsen said.
In Edinburg, Texas, state District Judge Noe Gonzalez understands the role a judge must play in working to ensure the right to a fair trial in a case that is generating plenty of media attention. Judge Gonzalez recently handled such a case in the matter of a Hidalgo County man who was accused and then convicted of kidnapping and murdering his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter.
Another recent high-profile case at the Hidalgo County Courthouse involved three teenagers who were accused and then convicted of murdering the grandmother of one of the three teens. That case was heard in the courtroom of state District Judge Juan Partida.
In neither case did judge Gonzalez or Partida resort to the harsh and clearly unconstitutional actions that Garza has demonstrated in the Rubio case.
Gonzalez correctly pointed out there are various steps a judge can take to manage a high-profile murder trial that does not involving banning the media from a courtroom.
Gonzalez said a judge should limit the access the jury has to the media and order jurors not to read or watch any coverage about the trial.
Judges can also limit the number of reporters at a hearing or allow only a single television camera in a courtroom as ways to calm a media storm, he said. Whatever the situation, Gonzalez said judges should tread carefully when it comes to the rights of the news media to provide coverage of court proceedings.
“Based on the Constitution, we shouldn’t start with banning the media. … There are ways to limit the media without infringing on the First Amendment,” Gonzalez said.
The right to a fair trial is an important one as defined by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. That does not mean, however, that the rights of the media and public as provided by the First Amendment should be trampled on as Garza demonstrated in his recent actions in the Rubio case.