Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists and other media outlets are fighting a motion to shut off public information in a highly watched Montana murder trial.
Attorneys in the case say releasing information to the public already has created a "media circus" and now jeopardizes the chance of defendant Nathaniel Bar-Jonah receiving a fair jury trial.
Bar-Jonah is charged with raping and murdering 10-year-old Zachary Ramsay in 1996 and then disposing of the boy’s body in meals served to unsuspecting neighbors.
The county prosecutor and defense attorneys asked District Judge Kenneth Neill to gag officials, seal the court records and bar the public from pretrial hearings. News organizations learned of the motion to seal information in Bar-Jonah’s jury trial in a letter from District Judge Kenneth Neill on Feb. 8 and have until Friday, Feb. 15, to respond. The judge has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 23.
"We’re very concerned that prosecutors would attempt to keep any portion of these proceedings behind closed doors and out of the eyes of the public," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and assistant managing editor for production at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "The public’s right to know is best served by conducting business in an open setting. Otherwise, there will always be questions about whether the trial was conducted fairly."
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund contributed $500 to the cost of filing a legal brief against the court’s attempt to close pretrial hearings and seal court documents. Other news organizations that signed on to the brief include television stations KRTV and KFBB in Great Falls, Mont., the Montana Newspaper Association, The Associated Press and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. The Great Falls Tribune newspaper also filed a separate legal brief to fight the attorneys’ motion.
"It’s a bedrock principle of American governance that court documents and courtroom proceedings are open to the public, even in cases that arouse public passions or disgust," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Montana. "To shut off public access to the court and to blame the media is an extreme knee-jerk reaction. Lawyers know there are other ways to ensure a fair trial."
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund helps fund court battles across the country to secure First Amendment rights. The Fund also has supported state Freedom of Information hotlines, computer bulletin boards and organizations that resolve First Amendment conflicts before they require costly litigation.
For more information about the Society’s Legal Defense Fund, contact LDF Chairwoman Christine Tatum at 312/222-5184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.