SANTA MARIA, Calif. – In the latest restriction on news media covering the Michael Jackson (search) child molestation case, bailiffs Thursday imposed an unusual new rule on reporters and members of the public attending a routine hearing: No talking in court, even before the proceedings.
Reporters have complained in the past about extraordinary secrecy in the case, including lack of access to hearings, the withholding of the identities of Jackson's alleged coconspirators, a sweeping gag order imposed on lawyers and the sealing of all case documents under a judge's order.
Members of the press and the public, including Jackson supporters, were warned by bailiffs Thursday that they would be ejected from the courtroom for even casual chatting with a neighbor.
One Jackson fan was tossed by bailiffs for talking to the person next to her moments after she entered the courtroom. Reporters silently scribbled notes to each other, like students in detention, as they questioned the legality of the new rule.
It was imposed after Santa Maria Times news columnist Steve Corbett (search) spoke with Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Sgt. Ross Ruth about a judge's order barring reporters from conducting interviews during breaks and hearings. Corbett argued that it was hard to say what constituted an interview and Ruth responded by ordering deputies to keep everyone silent.
A New York Post reporter tested the boundaries of the new rule twice. He got away with saying, "Good morning," to a colleague out of the earshot of sheriff's deputies. But when the reporter chatted with Deputy District Attorney Gerald Franklin before the hearing, a sheriff's deputy hushed the reporter and the attorney, warning them they couldn't speak to each other.
When the hearing began, Judge Rodney S. Melville (search) ordered prosecutors to give defendants the names of confidential witnesses in the case. The judge has ordered that the informants' names be kept secret, but District Attorney Tom Sneddon let one slip. He revealed in open court that the alleged victim's stepfather is one of the witnesses. Sneddon realized his error and lightly hit a podium in frustration.
Also Thursday, Melville said he would not allow complaints from the defense that prosecutors are not sharing evidence quickly enough derail a planned January trial date.
"That would be punishing me for your failure ... It's not in the interest of anybody to prolong this litigation. I'm very serious about it," Melville said.
The judge also set a Nov. 4 hearing date for a defense motion to have Sneddon removed from the case.
Jackson has pleaded not guilty to child molestation, conspiracy and administering an intoxicating agent, alcohol.