Friday, August 6, 2010
Judge Merritt Retains Bar on Publication of Photos
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Hilleri G. Merritt yesterday denied a motion to vacate an order, made Wednesday, that bars the Los Angeles Times from publishing photos taken in court with the judge’s permission.
Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib had taken several dozen photos of Alberd Tersargyan, accused of the murders of four people, including pictures of him wearing jail garb in lockup, before Merritt ordered him to stop. She further ordered the photographer and the newspaper “not to publish any photographs of the defendant taken from the proceedings of this date.”
The newspaper yesterday moved to vacate the publication ban as a prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment, but the judge stood by her original order.
Tersargyan is awaiting a trial in the killing of a woman in L.A.’s Little Armenia neighborhood in March. The judge Wednesday allowed prosecutors to file an amended complaint charging him with the 2008 slaying of the woman’s husband and 8-year-old daughter, as well as the murder of a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard earlier this year.
According to the court’s minutes, the case was before Merritt Wednesday for arraignment and the setting of a preliminary hearing when the judge was advised by counsel that there was a prior order prohibiting photographing or videotaping the defendant, in order to avoid identification issues.
The judge, who according to the minutes was unaware of the previous order, then ordered Seib to stop photographing and issued the ban on publication.
An attorney for the Times, Jeff Glasser of Davis Wright Tremaine, said the newspaper would file a writ petition challenging the ban “in the coming days.”
“We do not believe that the judge’s order is constitutional,” he said. “It amounts to a classic prior restraint on speech.”
Glasser argued that there was no California or U.S. Supreme Court precedent permitting a bar on publication of legally gathered materials, even in the face of national security or fair trial concerns, and pointed out that pictures of the defendant were already available online.
A request for comment from Merritt was referred to a Superior Court spokesperson, who told the MetNews that the judge was prohibited by a canon from speaking on the matter and that the only response the court could give was to report what had taken place.
“The record of both yesterday’s and today’s proceedings accurately depicts Judge Merritt’s actions in this matter and her concerns about the balance between Sixth Amendment [fair trial] and First Amendment [free press] issues,” the spokesperson said.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company