On the media and the Westerfield trial

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on August 29, 2002

I've been asked by several people what I think about San Diego Union-Tribune photographer Dan Trevan getting banned from the courtroom for taking a picture of Damon and Brenda van Dam as the guilty verdicts were announced in the case last week.

Superior Court Judge William Mudd said photographer Dan Trevan violated judicial restrictions by photographing Danielle van Dam's parents as they reacted to the jury's guilty verdicts last Wednesday.

The newspaper's lawyers argued that Brenda and Damon van Dam, whose 7-year-old daughter was reported missing from her bedroom Feb. 2 and was found dead 25 days later, were trial participants, not spectators, and thus not subject to the rule. Both van Dams testified during the trial, and Mudd allowed their pictures to be taken on the witness stand.

From everything I've read and seen, I'm going to have to agree with my employer. The van Dam's definitely aren't just spectators.

My Exhibit A is the fact that Judge Mudd has issued a gag order on all the parties involved in the case. That gag order applies to lawyers, witnesses, court personnel -- but not spectators. The van Dams are covered by that gag order. All of the media, and the few members of the public, sitting as spectators in that courtroom are not.

I think Judge Mudd, on the whole, has done a fine job in this case. However, I think he is unreasonable when he expects the media to act as an agent of the court. While there is no prior restraint on the media, it seems that Mudd would like the media to weigh what his reaction may be before publishing or airing anything.

The media should consider the truthfulness and accuracy of what it publishes, but I disagree that it should take into account any particular judge's (or law enforcement officer's, or politician's) opinion before deciding to publish information.

The media in this country is independent of the courts. We have to follow the rules, and while Mudd claims that this rule is "black and white" he may want to consult with some of the other judges.

In February, when Westerfield was arraigned before Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh, several news organizations took pictures of the van Dams as they sat in the courtroom gallery. Judge Deddeh did not order the photographers to stop or complain after the pictures were published and broadcast.

Maybe Mudd and Deddeh should have lunch.


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August 2002



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