By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The judge presiding over the trial of the man accused of killing a Blaine County sheriff's deputy has closed an upcoming court hearing to the public and sealed certain court documents for the immediate future.
At the April 13 hearing, attorneys for Lawrence Dean Jackson Jr. will argue that statements he made after the fatal shooting of deputy Joshua Rutherford should be suppressed because they were obtained in violation of the defendant's Miranda rights.
The judge's order, filed Wednesday, allows the Havre Daily News to obtain copies of the documents and attend the hearing. The order says the Daily News can immediately report on the hearing if McKeon does not suppress the evidence.
If he rules that the evidence can't be admitted at Jackson's trial, the Havre Daily News will have to delay publication until after a jury is chosen in early June. The trial is being held in Missoula partly because of pretrial publicity.
Jackson, 26, is accused of fatally shooting Rutherford and wounding deputy Loren Janis in a field south of Harlem last May. He is charged with one count of deliberate homicide and one count of attempted deliberate homicide.
The court order reflects a compromise between the Havre Daily News and Jackson's attorneys during a hearing Friday in state District Court in Havre. The Daily News had opposed closing the suppression hearing and hired Helena lawyer John Shontz to intervene.
"The Havre Daily News will do anything to defend the public's right to know," Brock said today. "We believe that the court proceedings in the Jackson case should be open for public review, which is why we retained John Shontz."
The compromise ensures that information from the documents and the hearing will be made public, even if the judge suppresses the evidence, Brock said.
Jackson's attorneys - Havre lawyer Bob Peterson and Helena lawyer Ed Sheehy - told the judge Friday that they feared media coverage about evidence discussed during the April 13 hearing could taint the jury pool in Missoula County.
In his ruling, McKeon agreed. Allowing the public to attend "would create a clear and present danger to the fairness of trial and the prejudicial effect of such information on trial fairness could not be avoided by reasonable alternative means."
McKeon moved the trial to Missoula after both the defense and prosecution urged a change of venue, citing pretrial publicity, the nature of the charges against Jackson and the small population of Blaine County.
In its brief recommending Missoula for the trial, the defense attorneys had noted a lack of publicity about the case in the western Montana city. The defense cited a letter to the editor published in the Missoulian in which a reader expressed disappointment over the paper's scant coverage of the Blaine County shooting.
"If Missoula citizens are complaining about the lack of coverage, this is the best forum the Court could hold the trial in," the defense's brief said. "The minimal coverage given this matter in Missoula County in conjunction with the large population base greatly dilutes the potential prejudicial effect on a jury pool."
In its motion to close the suppression hearing, the defense said it was concerned because articles published in the Great Falls Tribune and the Missoulian could jeopardize Jackson's right to a fair trial since jurors might be prejudiced by the articles.
McKeon on Friday pointed out that the defense had said last fall that the Missoulian gave the Jackson case very limited exposure, both in the number of articles it had printed and the articles' placement within the newspaper.
Sheehy reponded that the suppression hearing should be closed because articles published about it by the Havre Daily News could be picked up by The Associated Press and published throughout the state, including in Missoula County.
If that happened, it would necessitate extensive individual jury polling which would lengthen the trial and create a risk of the entire jury pool being contaminated, Sheehy said.
Brock today questioned the validity of that argument.
"The court has already granted a change of venue," he said. "We doubt whether publication in Hill County would affect a trial 350 miles away."
Shontz told McKeon that extensive individual jury polling would be preferable to closing the suppression hearing, and said other reasonable alternatives included directing jurors to disregard media coverage, and granting a change of venue - which the judge had already done.
Sheehy opposed Shont's suggested alternatives and McKeon ordered a recess to allow Shontz and Brock to meet with Jackson's attorneys. The two parties reached a compromise a short while later. McKeon said he approved of the compromise and issued a court order.
"Closure at this time is essential to higher values," McKeon said at the conclusion of Friday's hearing, adding that "the parties have come up with the least restrictive alternative."