Our view: Gag order in Harris murder case should be denied to protect public's interest and ensure its right to know the full account of the former councilman's death

November 19, 2008

Baltimore lawyers representing two men charged in the murder of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. have asked a judge to prohibit people involved in the case from talking about it publicly. But their written request didn't keep defense attorney Jan Bledsoe from telling reporters after a hearing that her client, Gary Collins, 20, was innocent. It seems the lawyers want to have it their way and then some.

Attorneys for Mr. Collins and Charles Y. McGaney, 19, are seeking the gag order because they fear their clients won't get a fair trial. Their chief concern is potential jurors: Will they be able to select a jury that can be fair and impartial when the case comes to trial?

The Baltimore Sun yesterday filed a motion asking the judge to deny the proposed gag order.

In a case of such notoriety, the defense lawyers' worry may understandable, but right now it's premature and misplaced. It will be months, maybe as long as a year, before this case goes to trial. More to the point, prosecutors are limited in what they can say about a case under the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct. In a notable 2003 decision, Maryland's highest court reinforced those standards, reprimanding then-Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler for comments he had made about a defendant in a triple murder case because he "spoke outside of the court about matters that had substantial likelihood of depriving several criminal defendants of fair trials."

As for police, they are usually selective in what they say about a case because they don't want to compromise the evidence against defendants.

Mr. Harris' killing shocked the city because it epitomized the random violence that can strike even leading members of the community. He had stopped at a popular jazz club near his Northeast Baltimore home to borrow a corkscrew and was confronted by three men who robbed the bar. Mr. Harris was shot as he tried to escape.

In the recent past, gag orders requested by state public defenders in two other high-profile Baltimore cases resulted in a lack of such basic information as dates of routine court hearings. That's unacceptable. America's judicial system is prized for its transparency. That openness serves justice and should not be compromised except for extraordinary reasons.

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