State District Judge Deborah Oakes Evans got her prior-restraint priorities right Tuesday when she excluded the press from an earlier unconstitutional court order restricting news coverage of the East Texas mass murder case.
Her amended order muzzles only the lawyers and law officers connected to the case. News outlets are free to report on pretrial motions, hearings and whatever else they can learn about what happened and why on Nov. 14 when six people from two families were killed at a campsite outside Palestine.
Judge Evans granted a sweeping gag order motion blocking news coverage on Nov. 20. It was filed by defense attorney Stephen Evans (no relation) and barred the press from reporting details of pretrial hearings and photographing the defendant going and coming from court.
Then, four days later, she issued a narrower gag order that applied to officers of the court. But that order did not rescind the earlier, broader prior restraint motion, which clearly violated U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the subject.
The contrasting orders baffled the news media and lawyers. They didn’t know if both gag orders applied or if one took precedent over the other. Or what was going on. The Palestine Herald-Press, in a Tuesday morning editorial, urged the judge to clarify her position or step down from the case.
Her clarifying, amended order was released by the Anderson County District Court Clerk’s Office right before closing time late Tuesday afternoon. Judge Evans said it superseded any previous prior restraint order.
She didn’t address the defense request to close pretrial hearings, but said the public and the press can attend “live sessions” of the court, and news organizations can publish “any information they have already obtained or may obtain in the future.”
That’s a given, of course, under the First Amendment right to publish. That Judge Evans even considered restraining news coverage is troubling. As a judge, she should know that in case after case, most notably the Pentagon papers, the Supreme Court has said the courts cannot prevent the press from publishing news.
The defense motion was patently unconstitutional. It was an effort to process the case against accused murderer William Mitchell Hudson, 33, out of the public eye. A star chamber approach, if you will.
Yes, this is inherently a sensational case. But that is no reason to deny the public information they have a right to know, including what took place at the campsite next to Hudson’s property, and why the mass murders happened.
Six people, including a 6-year-old boy, were massacred in Anderson County. One person survived by hiding from the killer. The purpose of the news media is to report timely information about the case to the public. This is important to guarding against a miscarriage of justice behind closed doors.
The Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1976 Nebraska murder case that a judge cannot suppress the media’s ability to inform simply because the details of the carnage are unpleasant and there’s concern the defendant’s right to a fair trial might be impinged.
The high court duly noted that silencing the press can lead to wild rumors that do more damage to a fair trial than news reports.
“Plainly,” the court declared,”a whole community cannot be restrained from discussing a subject intimately affecting life within it.”