Reporters and cameras will be barred from a key evidence hearing in the case against four men accused of fatally shooting former Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor during a botched 2007 robbery at his home, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy agreed with defense attorneys that the hearing on whether to allow purported confessions or incriminating statements at trial should be closed so that prospective jurors aren't exposed to material that might skew their view of the high-profile case.
"There is not an automatic right to be present for pretrial hearings," Murphy said. "Closure is necessary for these defendants to receive a fair trial."
Murphy set the closed hearing for May 20. A trial date has not yet been scheduled for the four men, all from the Fort Myers area: 20-year-old Eric Rivera Jr., identified by police as the shooter; Charles Wardlow, 21; Jason Mitchell, 23; and 19-year-old Timmy Lee Brown. A fifth suspect, 23-year-old Venjah Hunte, pleaded guilty to murder and burglary charges and is expected to testify against the others.
Taylor, an All-Pro safety with the Redskins who also starred at the University of Miami, bled to death after he was shot in the thigh during a confrontation with the robbers at his Miami-area home. Police have said the group did not expect Taylor to be home because the Redskins had a game that weekend, but he was out with an injury.
Attorneys for The Miami Herald and Post-Newsweek tried to persuade Murphy not to close the evidence hearing. They said Miami's population is easily large enough to find jurors not exposed to reporting about the Taylor case and that defense lawyers hadn't provided any proof that media attention would be pervasive.
"Common sense says not everyone is going to read the articles, and common sense says not everyone is going to retain it," said Herald attorney Scott Ponce, adding that questioning during jury selection is sufficient to weed out biased jurors.
But Murphy, who has also issued a gag order on attorneys in the case and sealed key documents, would have none of it. He pointed out that several reporters were in the courtroom Wednesday.
"That's evidence, right?" he said. "As we get closer to trial, I have no doubt we will have pervasive and extensive coverage of this case."
The four men each face potential life sentences if convicted. Prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty under U.S. Supreme Court rulings because the alleged triggerman, Rivera, was only 17 when the crime was committed.