In the latest restriction on the news organizations covering the Michael Jackson case, bailiffs Thursday imposed an unusual new rule on reporters and members of the public attending a routine hearing: No talking in court, not even before the proceedings.
Reporters have complained in the past about extraordinary secrecy in the child molestation case, including lack of access to hearings, the withholding of the identities of Jackson’s alleged conspirators, a sweeping gag order imposed on lawyers, and the sealing of all case documents under a judge’s order.
Members of the media and the public, including Jackson supporters, were warned by bailiffs Thursday that they would be ejected from the courtroom for even chatting with a neighbor.
One fan of Jackson’s was tossed by bailiffs for talking to the person next to her moments after she entered the courtroom. Reporters silently scribbled notes to each other, like students in class, as they questioned the legality of the rule.
It was imposed after Santa Maria Times news columnist Steve Corbett spoke with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ross Ruth about a judge’s order barring reporters from conducting interviews during breaks and hearings. Corbett argued that it was hard to say what constituted an interview, and Ruth responded by ordering his deputies to keep everyone silent.
A New York Post reporter tested the boundaries of the new rule twice. He got away with saying, “Good morning,” to a colleague out of the earshot of sheriff’s deputies. But when the reporter chatted with a prosecutor, a sheriff’s deputy hushed them, warning them they could not speak to each other.
When the hearing began, Judge Rodney S. Melville ordered prosecutors to give the defendants the names of confidential witnesses in the case. The judge has ordered that the informants’ names be kept secret, but District Attorney Tom Sneddon let one slip. He revealed in court that the alleged victim’s stepfather is one of the witnesses. Sneddon realized his error and lightly hit a podium in frustration.
Also Thursday, Melville said he would not allow plans to begin the trial in January to be derailed by complaints from the defense that prosecutors are not sharing evidence quickly enough.
“That would be punishing me for your failure. ... It’s not in the interest of anybody to prolong this litigation. I’m very serious about it,” Melville said.
The judge also set a Nov. 4 hearing on a defense request to have Sneddon removed from the case.