In a highly unusual move, a Circuit Court judge issued a gag order last week prohibiting all parties in the murder trial of a North Laurel woman from discussing any aspect of the case with the public or news media.
Judge Cornelius Sybert issued the ruling in the case of Beverly Seward, who is charged with fatally shooting her common-law husband last July. Assistant State's Attorney Kate O'Donnell, who is prosecuting the case, asked for the protective order following a Jan. 27 newspaper article in the Howard County Sun that included an interview with Seward.
"We ask that that type of newspaper, radio, pre-trial publicity be stopped," said O'Donnell, who referred to the article as "improper and opportunistic."
"It impacts on Beverly Seward's ability to geta fair trial in Howard County and the state's ability to come to court to pick a jury."
Seward's public defender, Richard Bernhardt, called O'Donnell's request "extraordinary," saying it was "unwarrantedat this point in time."
The protective order applies to Seward, all staff members of the Circuit Court, the Office of the Public Defender and all witnesses and prohibits them from discussing the case.
Seward, 40, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 37-year-old Archie White last July 29 at the couple's town house in North Laurel. In the Howard County Sun article, Seward said White beat her over a 10-year period, and that she shot him in self-defense. She also claims that years of physical abuse caused her to suffer from a psychological condition known as battered-spouse syndrome.
Seward'strial was scheduled to begin on Jan. 30, but was postponed -- at thestate's request -- until May 29 to determine whether expert testimony on battered-spouse syndrome will be allowed as evidence.
Mental health experts say the syndrome leaves women virtually powerless to free themselves from their abuser. Bernhardt has indicated that he plans to present expert testimony on the syndrome as part of Seward's defense.
Sybert plans to hear arguments from both attorneys in Marchon the admissibility of expert testimony on battered-spouse syndrome.
Several lawyers interviewed last week who are familiar with suchissues defended a judge's responsibility to ensure a fair trial. Butsome said that the gag order issued in the Seward case carries unusually sweeping restrictions.
"The judge is well within his rights to protect the integrity of the trial, but the order appears to be very, very broad," said Cristina Gutierrez, a Baltimore lawyer who has defended women who have killed their abusers.
"Often times, cases that merit public attention present specific problems for both sides, but the public has a right to know," Gutierrez said. "The issues are broader than just a single rule of law. This case clearly merits press attention and public discussion."
Michael Millemann, associate professor of law at the University of Maryland Law School, also expressed concern that important information about the case might be kept from the public.
"I can understand the judge's concern that detailed interviews with the defendant about critical matters might seriously prejudice prospective jurors, particularly if the defendant will not testify at the trial," said Millemann.
"On the other hand, theseare matters of real topical concern about battered-spouse defense," Millemann said. "The public is entitled to know those matters as longas their disclosure doesn't include facts or alleged facts that willunfairly prejudice the prosecution's case."
The issue of whether expert testimony on the syndrome has a place in the courtroom has recently been the focus of much attention from public officials.
A bill now before the Maryland General Assembly would allow judges to consider expert testimony on the syndrome as part of a legal defense. Twice in the last two years, legislators have defeated similar bills.
Maryland courts have consistently refused to allow expert testimonyon battered-spouse syndrome or evidence of physical abuse at trials of women accused of killing their abusers.
A trial involving potential use of battered-spouse syndrome as a defense serves as a forum for educating the public about an issue that is generally misunderstood, say battered-women's advocates.
"There's massive misinformation out there, and any opportunity to get accurate information out is an important opportunity, and it's not a good thing to see those avenues of information shut down," said Holly Maguigan, an associate professor of clinical law at New York University Law School.
Gutierrez said that a judge can impose less "severe and intrusive measures" besides issuing a gag order to ensure the selection of an impartial jury. The process of "voir dire," she said, permits the judge and attorneys for both sides to question potential jurors to determine if they are free from prejudices.
"There are many cases that are highly publicized for long periods of time before a trial occurs where judges must conduct extensive voir dire to ensure that even though jurors read or followed publicity in a case, they're still able to make fair and impartial judgments," said Gutierrez.
Despite the postponement of the Seward trial, public debate about the use of testimony on battered-spouse syndrome as evidence will inevitably continue as the bill comes before the General Assembly.