Friday, March 9, 2007
C.A.: Sexual Predator Proceeding Should Not Have Been Broadcast
Justices Criticize Decision to Allow Television Coverage, but Hold There Was No Prejudice
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Superior Court judge in Riverside County abused his discretion by allowing television coverage of a recommitment proceeding under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, but the defendant was not prejudiced as a result, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Two made those rulings in affirming an order that James Howard Dixon be recommitted to a state hospital after a jury found that he was a sexually violent predator and was likely to re-offend.
Dixon was committed under the SVPA in 2000, after serving his sentence for a 1987 sexual assault on a Riverside woman. The prosecution evidence showed that he came into the sleeping victim’s bedroom, pinned her by her shoulders, hit and choked her, and made repeated attempts at sexual penetration before falling asleep.
He had previously been convicted of two 1978 rapes in San Diego. In one, he threatened the 15-year-old victim with a knife before he assaulted her, in the other he beat and raped a cab driver, striking her on the head with several objects, including the meter flag from the taxi.
The Riverside district attorney filed a recommitment petition in 2002. That case had not yet been tried by 2004, so another petition was filed and the cases were consolidated for trial.
In June 2005, a request to permit television coverage of the trial was made. The defense opposed it, arguing that it would prejudice the jury pool, permit exposure of Dixon’s confidential psychological records, and intimidate defense witnesses.
Dixon’s attorney also objected that the request was untimely, since the request was not made at least five days before trial, as required by what was then Rule 980 of the California Rules of Court. The rule was recently renumbered and is now Rule 1.150.
Riverside attorney David Wohl, representing CBS 2, argued that there was a First Amendment right of access to trials. The defense pointed out that involuntary civil commitment proceedings have traditionally been closed to the press and public in California.
Retired San Bernardino Superior Court Judge James Edwards, sitting in Riverside Superior Court on assignment, agreed to permit the coverage, with certain limitations. No identification of jurors was to be permitted, witnesses’ identities would be kept confidential where appropriate, and the camera was not to be placed so as to be a distraction.
Appealing the recommitment order, the defense argued that the broadcast coverage was both improper and prejudicial. Court-appointed appellate lawyer Chris Truax argued that defense counsel was unable to confer with Dixon outside the hearing of microphones and the view of the camera and was intimidated and distracted when the camera operator moved around the courtroom during closing argument.
Justice Art McKinster, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge should not have allowed the coverage.
“Although the trial court’s approach appears to be reasonable, it is apparent upon closer examination that the court failed to give proper consideration to the factors listed in rule 1.150,” including the impact of the coverage on counsel and witnesses, the need to maintain public confidence in the system, and the nature of the proceedings, McKinster said.
The rule, the justice elaborated, declares that broadcast coverage may be permitted as an exception to the traditional, absolute ban. In ruling on a request to photograph, record or broadcast proceedings, he said, the trial court is to take a “cautious approach” in light of longstanding fair trial concerns.
“While many of the potential risks associated with having cameras in the courtroom have been minimized with improvements in technology and the application of other conditions, such as limiting the media to the use of one camera...there remain some serious concerns in balancing the defendant’s interest in a fair trial and the public’s interest in observing the judicial process,” he said.
Reversal Not Required
In Dixon’s case, the justice went on to say, the trial judge may have erroneously applied a presumption of openness and should have given more attention to the concerns expressed by defense counsel. In particular, he said, “the unusual nature of a civil commitment proceeding under the SVPA” should have been weighed heavily on the side of denying television or videotape coverage.
McKinster also concluded, however, that the erroneous decision to allow the coverage does not require reversal absent a specific showing that the outcome of the proceeding was affected. While the media presence may have been distracting, he reasoned, this was not a “Roman circus” of the type complained of in U.S. Supreme Court cases on the subject.
“The record shows that the court, for the most part, maintained control over the courtroom and attempted to minimize the impact of the media’s presence during defendant’s trial,” the justice said, adding that, apart from the media attention and the “salacious details,” the case was actually quite routine.
The case is People v. Dixon, 07 S.O.S. 1148.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company