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Harris Co. judge issues, then amends, egregious media gag order in high profile murder case

After initially issuing a gag order seeking to prevent media outlets from writing or speaking about a recent high profile multiple murder case, a Harris County district judge amended the order on Friday partially addressing media concerns about unconstitutional prior restraint.

Jonathan Donnellan, deputy general counsel for the Hearst Corp. which owns the Houston Chronicle, said the original order was “an unconstitutional prior restraint on the media that is staggering in its sweep and a clear violation of the Texas Constitution and First Amendment."

David Conley is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, her husband and six of her children at their home near Houston earlier this month.  

The case received national attention because of the number of individuals murdered at the home.

Conley gave jailhouse interviews to several Houston broadcast and print media outlets before 183rd District Court Judge Vanessa Velasquez initially issued a gag order requested by Conley’s attorneys.

The original order contained several broad provisions including barring the pre-trial publication of any witness accounts which identified Conley, names and addresses of prospective witnesses or jurors, and “limits the news comment and reporting of the afore stated members of the news media during the trial of the accused for the crime of capital murder.” 

It also barred any photography of the defendant and witnesses in the courtroom or in the courthouse itself, as well as courtroom sketches or broadcasting or recording equipment in the courtroom.

On Friday Velasquez rescinded the original order in the face of mounting criticism and issued an amended one that “bars lawyers, law enforcement and witnesses who gave statements to police or who end up testifying at trial from speaking to the media,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

The judge wrote in the new order that she was "mindful of the First Amendment rights of the parties, counsel for the parties, the media, as well as the Open Courts Provision of the Texas Constitution" but expressed her concerns that the attention the case received could interfere with a fair trial.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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