KPLC & American Press to appeal O'Neal ruling

By Theresa Schmidt - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - A judge in Beauregard Parish refuses to open pre-trial hearings in the case of a man who allegedly murdered a child.  Media seeking to open the courtroom to the public will appeal to a higher court.

KPLC-TV and the American Press went before Judge Martha Ann O'Neal asking her to reverse her decision to close hearings and seal the record in the case of Jeffery Denby-- booked for first degree murder of 18 month old John Thomas Brewer.

The judge says she's trying to protect Denby's right to a fair trial and be able to seat a jury without a possible change of venue and related expenses. But media attorney Jim Doyle argues the public's right to know trumps other considerations.

"The First Amendment is an absolute amendment. Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. We have a tradition in this country of a vigorous open press. Thomas Jefferson said if I had my choice between having no newspapers or having newspapers and no liberty, I'd have newspapers every time. Because with newspapers we're guaranteed liberty. The same thing applies now."

The judge also heard from the prosecution and the defense who agree that the hearings should be closed--in part because of pending issues involving other juveniles, adults and an ongoing investigation. However it's the media's position there are less radical ways to assure Denby gets a fair trial and to protect juveniles.

"There's an elaborate system that is set up in our statutory law, that is the laws that our legislature passes in our constitution and in court decisions talking about how you protect a defendant from pre-trial publicity. Now those cases and those statutes all assume that there's going to be pre-trial publicity, not that there won't be."

After hearing from all sides the judge refused to change her ruling saying she has made provisions to make sure the press has what it needs to know, that is her ruling. But Doyle says that's inadequate. "The public has a right to observe its public officials-- the district attorney, the judges, the sheriff's deputies that are going to testify about their investigation. The public has a right to make a decision about whether those people have done their job."

KPLC-TV and the American Press will appeal to the Third Circuit Court with the hope of opening the courtroom in the Denby case.

In light of the judge's gag order neither the state or defense attorney are doing interviews in the case.

It's likely to take a month to six weeks before there's any decision from the Third Circuit.

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