Harris gag rule effort is dropped

Suspects' lawyers withdraw requests day before hearing

November 21, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Two Baltimore defense attorneys have withdrawn requests for a court order that would have barred attorneys and police officers from publicly discussing the case against the two men accused of killing former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

Attorneys for The Baltimore Sun, WBAL-TV and WJZ-TV had opposed the gag order in filings in District Court this week. A hearing on the dispute was scheduled this morning, but late yesterday, Assistant Public Defender Maureen Rowland and defense attorney Jan Bledsoe withdrew their requests.

"We are happy that we can continue to provide full coverage of this matter of significant public importance," said Karen Kaiser, an attorney for the Tribune Co., which owns The Baltimore Sun. "Gag orders restrict the public's ability to learn about a trial, and they decrease transparency in the court system. We will continue to fight for the public's right to access information."

Public defenders in Baltimore have increasingly sought gag orders in high-profile criminal cases, including those of Mark Castillo, who is accused of drowning his three children in the bathtub at an Inner Harbor hotel, and Brandon Grimes, who is awaiting sentencing for the murder of an off-duty police detective.

Harris was shot and killed in September in an armed robbery outside a popular Northeast Baltimore jazz club. Police charged Charles Y. McGaney, 19, and Gary Collins, 20, in the killing last week.

Judges routinely grant gag orders if no one appears in court to oppose them. Neither the court nor the defense attorneys are required to notify the news media when one is requested, and the result has been that reporters don't learn that their sources are prohibited from speaking until weeks or months after an order has been approved.

The language in the requests is also so broad that it prevents the release of hearing dates or the retelling of events already in the public record.

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