Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Attorneys in Sean Taylor case are silenced

Judge rules in favor of defendants' rights

By Pat Gillespie

Originally posted on January 09, 2008

MIAMI — A Miami-Dade circuit judge issued a gag order Tuesday, ruling attorneys and officials in the Sean Taylor killing can no longer discuss the case with the media.

Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy also ruled, after more than an hour of arguments, the state attorney can remove some material from the case before making it public.

His decisions, he said, were made with the rights of the defendants in mind.

Eric Rivera, Charles Wardlow, Venjah Hunte and Jason Scott Mitchell, all of Lee County, are charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary in the death of Taylor, a Washington Redskins safety. Taylor was shot Nov. 26 in his Miami home during a botched robbery and he died the next day.

"Based upon the pre-trial publicity, there is a substantial likelihood that pre-trial publicity without constraint will interfere with a fair trial," Murphy said.

Attorneys representing The Miami Herald, CNN, an ABC affiliate television station in Miami, The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine argued Florida Bar rules of professional conduct should govern what attorneys say, not a judge's order.

But Murphy said this case, in which four people are accused of killing a professional athlete, is different than most.

"I've got four people charged with first-degree murder," he said. "I've got contempt orders that have a much more immediate effect."

Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin said he didn't yet know if the state would seek the death penalty.

Wardlow's attorney, David Brener, wrote in his motion for the gag order that co-counsel in the case have improperly discussed facts of the case with the media as well as their clients' roles and roles of their co-defendants.

He cited attorney Michael Hornung, who after the Dec. 12 arraignment in the case, spoke with media after Murphy advised attorneys not to, Brener said.

"Apparently, that message didn't get across," Brener told Murphy.

Prosecutors and Brener said they agreed with the gag order. Hornung wasn't at the hearing, but an attorney who stood in for him had no objection.

Media attorneys also argued against temporarily sealing and removing evidence that will become public in the case.

Prosecutors argued some of the investigation in the case has not yet been completed and they want to remove material they believe could hurt the case. Defense attorneys said they didn't want the public to get their clients' statements, which could hurt their chances at a fair trial.

Under Florida law, portions of defendants' statements can become public if they aren't considered admissions to the crime.

"We have a duty to finish our investigation — the defense has a right to a fair trial,'' Rubin said.

Media attorneys argued unless there is a specific exemption, the information should become public without delay. Defense attorneys are expected to get evidence materials Thursday.

But Murphy ruled in high-profile cases, a saturation of media attention can effect the trial. He cited the case against John Evander Couey, a Citrus County man whose trial was moved to Miami. A Miami jury convicted him of the kidnapping, rape and murder of Jessica Lunsford in early 2007.

Richard Sharpstein, Taylor's former attorney and representative of his family, said after the hearing he will abide by the gag order.

"The Taylor family and the Garcia family have the utmost confidence in Judge Murphy," he said. "This case should be tried in the courtroom, not in the press."

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