Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ohio Judge Bars Press Coverage of Jury Selection in Murder Trial

Courtroom #4Image by Padraic. via Flickr
Henry County (Ohio) Judge Keith P. Muehlfeld has restricted press coverage in the involuntary manslaughter case of 13-month-old Kamryn Gerkin the same week that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the defendant's conviction in a Georgia drug trial because the public was excluded from the courtroom during the jury selection process.

Judge Muehlfeld has left the door to his courtroom unlocked, but has banned the press from reporting on the trials of the toddler's mother Jayme Schwenkmeyer and her boyfriend David Knepley until the jury is seated. Judge Muehlfeld also issued a gag order against attorneys and witnesses preventing them from speaking to the news media pre-jury selection.  An autopsy performed on the toddler allegedly revealed the presence of multiple toxic drugs, including oxycodone.

Judge Muehlfeld's well-intentioned, but ham-fisted, attempt to prevent the jury pool from becoming tainted by prejudicial pretrial publicity is particularly egregious in that it occurred the same week in which the High Court held in a 7-2 decision in Presley v. Georgia (Case No. 09-5270) that jury selection in criminal trials is presumptively open under the First and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution.

In Richmond Newspapers  v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980), Justice Warren Burger wrote the majority opinion holding that the First Amendment guarantees all citizens the right to attend criminal trials. "TUOL" prescribes a daily constitutional for Judge Muehlfeld consisting of a brisk walk to the law library where he can re-read the Bill of Rights.
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  1. I believe too many judicial gag orders are issued here Canada, and they seem to be increasing here, at least to this lay person.
    It's disturbing to read that they happen in your justice system as well, which seems more weighted toward public access and media. Our press here sometimes challenges a ruling and is occasionally successful in obtaining some minor compromise.

  2. Prognostication is not my strong suit, but this is settled law here, so Judge Muehlfeld's order should be flipped as unconstitutional. Of course, stranger things have happened in Ohio (I recall voting machines getting a bit "hinkey" there during the 2004 presidential election), and that is where Dr. Sam Sheppard initially was tried and convicted of murder (Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333(1966)), so anything is possible.

  3. Interesting story...And I would like to note I have quite a bit of background on the actual case. Who is to say WHICH Amendment holds stronger than another? Does it not occur to the public that upholding the defendant's 6th Amendment causes his life to hang in the balance...being sentenced for up to 15 years...whereas the media's liberty of reporting on the case just FIVE days later...does not cause their lives to be in jeopardy at all. It is a hard line to follow..but for once someone is standing up for the realism behind what happens in a real life circumstance. It is very sad that the media that is filing the suit almost missed the 1st case of Jayme Schwenkmeyer all together, before it was declared a mistrial. Also note that both lawyers, and all other media are unopposed to waiting just FIVE order to seat a fair, unbiased jury in such a small town. Maybe everyone should put down their rule books and step into reality for once. I can guarantee Judge Muehlfeld does not need a recap to the law library, or a refresher course...I think the public needs a major eye opener to the real life judicial system.