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Legal celebrities exchange views in Reno

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Posted: Monday, October 17, 2005 10:00 pm

A strange thing happened last week in Reno.

Scott Peterson's attorney was in the same room with his prosecutors. Robert Blake's attorney was also there, as were his prosecutor and judge. Kobe Bryant's attorney, prosecutor and judge also made extended appearances. Others included the Washington, D.C. sniper's prosecutor, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and the judge who oversaw the case of Seattle's Green River Killer.

Layla Bohm

To that mix, add well-known journalists who cover trials across the country. And, while you're add it, throw in some public relations specialists.

No, it was not the apocalypse, though the odds of getting 80-something such people together are probably lower than the odds of winning anything in the nearby casinos.

They gathered for the 2005 National Conference on Courts and Media, put on by the National Judicial College, which trains judges from across the country. The goal: Discuss how media coverage of high-profile trials has changed since the O.J. Simpson trial a decade ago, and figure out ways to make improvements.

By the time Tuesday morning rolled around, there were no definitive answers. We did, however, leave with questions and ideas to ponder, such as more legal training for journalists, cameras in courtrooms, and coordination between court personnel and the media.

Even though celebrity trials don't generally happen in San Joaquin County, I've seen the media swarm. When Sarah Dutra was charged with murdering her boss with horse tranquilizer, camera crews swarmed around the courtroom doors. It became a nightly joke to flip between news channels to see how many times I appeared in the background.

And when the FBI recently descended on Lodi in a large terror investigation, the national media also arrived. They brought satellite trucks, taxis, spotlights and demands.

Conference attendees heard I was from Lodi and knew about the terrorism case. They asked me about details, and my answer wasn't surprising for the frustrated journalists trying to inform the public: Many documents are sealed.

But by the end of the conference, we had all seen viewpoints other than our own. Some, like Thomas Mesereau Jr., who represented Michael Jackson, said he only thinks of his clients and not the public.

He commanded attention at a panel discussion when he began speaking about his views on the fact that virtually every document was sealed in Jackson's trial.

The speech was a bit too much for Linda Deutsch, the veteran Associated Press court reporter whose name is known to most court reporters and criminal attorneys. Jackson may have called her from Bahrain when the trial ended just to thank her for her fair coverage, but that certainly didn't detract from her ultimate goal: To make the public aware.

As soon as Mesereau finished talking about how he liked having the documents sealed, Deutsch sailed right in and all 80-something people in the room went silent. (In the interest of full disclosure, she's my cousin. But I certainly wasn't the only one sitting there in awe.)

A staunch advocate of the First Amendment, Deutsch wants courts open to the media, including cameras. She wants the public to see what happens in court, and she gets upset when hearings are closed, cameras are barred and judges issue sweeping gag orders to bar everyone from talking about a case.

Taxpayers fund the courthouse, along with the salaries of judges, prosecutors and many of the defense attorneys. They deserve to know what's going on in court, and to make sure the process is kept in check.

One prosecutor, who is handling a case against former NBA star Jayson Williams, wasn't convinced. Neither was Mesereau.

But Michael McCann, who prosecuted Jeffrey Dahmer, said he had no problem with courtrooms being open to cameras and the public. "I'm a prosecutor, but first I'm a free American," he said.

And Robert Blake's attorney, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, said his views had since changed, and he understood the importance of the public's right to know what is happening in the justice system.

What I realized more than ever is that we all have a job to do, whether it's informing the public, protecting the public or defending the public.

And, when it comes down to it, we're just people. When I first saw the list of conference attendees, I wondered if I'd be intimidated. I'll admit that I also wondered if some of the attorneys would be arrogant snobs.

For instance, even though Mesereau with his shoulder-length white hair became so recognizable on television during Jackson's spectacle of a trial, he walked through a casino without turning heads.

Schwartzbach blended in, too, though anybody listening would have soon learned that he always speaks in an animated, intense fashion. He doesn't just speak clearly, but his facial expressions and hands also convey his point.

Whether he's talking about his views on the death penalty or cracking a joke about his short stature, it's the same. For instance, he joked that before he agrees to represent a client, he asks, "Can you provide me a chair so that my head reaches about the defense table?"

Layla Bohm, the assistant city editor at the News-Sentinel, also covers police and courts.



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