By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
CHINOOK - A judge Tuesday denied a request by the Great Falls Tribune to allow the public to attend a court hearing on whether evidence in the case of accused killer Laurence Jackson Jr. should be suppressed.
The hearing, on whether statements Jackson made after the shooting of Blaine County sheriff's deputy Joshua Rutherford should be admitted at trial, was held later Tuesday afternoon behind closed doors. District Judge John McKeon did not immediately rule on whether to suppress the statements.
In making his ruling not to open the hearing to the public, McKeon said he needed to determine whether some of Jackson's statements to police were made involuntarily. If the media printed information about those statements, it would "present a clear and present danger' to Jackson's ability to receive a fair trial, the judge said.
Jackson, 26, is charged with deliberate homicide in the fatal shooting death of Rutherford and attempted deliberate homicide in the wounding of deputy Loren Janis. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The Tribune sought Tuesday's hearing to ask McKeon to reverse his March 17 order that closed the suppression hearing to the public. The order allowed the Havre Daily News to attend the hearing, and also to obtain copies of court documents that McKeon had sealed.
The order reflected a compromise between the newspaper and Jackson's attorneys. Under the court order, the Havre Daily News would have to delay printing information about the hearing or documents until a jury was seated if McKeon suppressed Jackson's statements. If he denied the request by Jackson's attorneys, the record would be immediately unsealed, and the newspaper could immediately print a story about Jackson's statements.
The Havre Daily News later asked the judge to disregard the compromise and open the hearing to the public. McKeon denied that request.
The compromise was a mistake, Havre Daily News Publisher Harvey Brock said this morning.
"After reviewing that decision, we believe it was a mistake and might set a precedent that could hurt the public's right to know in future court cases," he said.
McKeon on Tuesday asked the Tribune if it would be willing to consider the same agreement reached with the Havre Daily News. Tribune lawyer Jennifer Hendricks said it could not do so because company policy prohibited the paper from withholding information it has access to.
Although McKeon's order allowed it to do so, the Havre Daily News chose not to attend Tuesday's suppression hearing.
"If the meeting is not open to the public, we're not going to attend," Brock said.
Before Tuesday's hearing, the Tribune asked the Montana Supreme Court to force McKeon to delay the evidence suppression hearing. The Supreme Court denied the Tribune's request and the closed suppression hearing proceeded as planned.
"Because the District Court has followed the process mandated by statute and because there is not apparent right on the part of the Tribune for an immediate appeal," the Supreme Court could not grant the newspaper's request to delay the hearing, the Supreme Court's order said.
Justice Jim Nelson was the lone dissenting judge.
Hendricks took a two-pronged approach in her effort to convince McKeon that the hearing should be open to the public. First she argued that case law requires the defense to present evidence to support its claim that media coverage would taint the jury pool. That evidence should include information about media saturation and expert psychological testimony that jurors would be unable to disregard media reports.
Even if the defense had presented that evidence, she argued, the court needed to consider alternatives to closing the suppression hearing. Those alternatives could include a change of venue - which has already been granted - and extensive jury polling, Hendricks said.
Jackson's trial is scheduled to start June 7 in Missoula. The prosecution and defense filed a joint motion last year requesting the change of venue due to the small population of Blaine County, the nature of the charges against Jackson and the amount of media coverage given the case.