Access squelched: A gag order on the police killings shorts the public

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Dispensing justice always is a balancing act, but a Common Pleas judge has tipped the scales too far in restricting public comments by police officers, lawyers and others involved in the case of Richard Poplawski.

Since the morning of April 4, the region's attention has been riveted on the killings of three Pittsburgh police officers, gunned down as they responded to a call for assistance at the Poplawski home in Stanton Heights. Citizens stood in line at the City-County Building, in funeral homes, cemeteries and along city streets last week to show their respect for the slain officers, and public interest in the case remains extremely high.

Yet in issuing a gag order Tuesday, Judge Jeffrey Manning has gone beyond what is necessary to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial and has shorted the public's right to detailed information about what took place and about the man who now must answer for it.

The judge's order prohibits anyone involved in the case -- lawyers, police officers, jail guards, investigators, future witnesses -- from making statements out of court that they know likely will prejudice the case.

To be fair, it is not the blanket prohibition that defense attorney Lisa Middleman sought. A broader gag order, for example, would have prevented Ms. Middleman from explaining why her client waived his right to a preliminary hearing yesterday (she felt it was in his best interest and it saved the cost of security that would have been necessary).

But there are less-restrictive ways to ensure a fair trial. Police already have procedures they are to follow regarding what can be made public, and lawyers are required to follow a professional code of conduct regarding high-profile cases. Careful questioning also can be used to screen out potential jurors who have too much information to sit impartially, although in this case it's hard to fathom that will be easy to accomplish. When it cannot be done, a jury can be selected from outside Allegheny County or the trial conducted elsewhere.

The gag order, although not directed at the news media, will restrict the ability of reporters to do their jobs. That means our readers and the public may be denied access to information they have a right to know.


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