LOS ANGELES – While rumors run wild in the Michael Jackson (search) child molestation case, the judge continues to shield the public from official information that should be released, a lawyer for the media said in a legal brief filed Tuesday.
The arguments for access to sealed documents were filed with an appeals court now considering the issue, which has become a First Amendment (search) battle.
Attorney Theodore Boutrous said Santa Maria Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville (search) "has been applying incorrect legal standards" in ordering that all documents in the case be filed under seal.
Boutrous said that Melville's chief stated reason for the extraordinary secrecy is Jackson's worldwide fame.
"Other than emphasizing Mr. Jackson's celebrity status, the court does not explain why Mr. Jackson's fair-trial rights are any more in jeopardy than the rights of defendants in other high-profile cases," Boutrous said.
The county counsel's brief, filed last month, argues that Jackson is so well-known that "obtaining an unbiased jury in Santa Maria may be difficult even without pretrial publicity."
Boutrous, who represents a coalition of media organizations including The Associated Press, responded that, "No evidence has been submitted that the people of Santa Maria are incapable of treating Mr. Jackson fairly."
He said that careful jury questioning and instructions to jurors to avoid publicity would mitigate problems at the trial.
The motion noted that a brief from Jackson's defense complained that the pop star is "surrounded by wild rumors and salacious allegations."
But Boutrous said the defense does not explain "how shielding the public from official information about the case, instead of exposing it to 'wild rumors,' will protect Mr. Jackson's right to a fair trial."
Jackson has pleaded not guilty to child molestation, conspiracy and administering an intoxicating agent, alcohol.
Boutrous agreed that the name of the alleged victim and his relatives could be removed from the documents to protect the boy's identity. Otherwise, he argued that the appeals court should order the judge to unseal key documents in their entirety.