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Stayner trial requires criminal check for media

The Associated Press
Friday February 09, 2001

FRESNO — When Yosemite killer Cary Stayner returns to court on charges of murdering three park tourists, he won’t be the only one in the room whose criminal background was examined. 

Concerned about security in the tiny old Mariposa County courthouse, court officials are requiring reporters to get a fingerprint analysis to make sure they have a clean record before they can report on Stayner’s trial. 

The measure is unusual in legal journalism and somehow managed to slip past the gaze of editors, news directors and First Amendment experts who usually make efforts to protect press freedom. 

“This is the first thing I’ve heard about it,” said Charlie Waters, executive editor of The Fresno Bee. “This is absurd.” 

Waters said Thursday that a reporter from the newspaper was credentialed because he covered Stayner’s case in federal court, but said he also plans to send other reporters and they won’t submit to criminal background checks. 

Mariposa Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Berest said he thought he was following the procedure used to issue press credentials in the federal case against Stayner. 

But Carol Davis, a federal court official in Sacramento who was consulted by Mariposa officials, said reporters only had to submit two photos and show their credentials to get a special pass for the case heard in Fresno federal court. 

“This is way off from what they said when I spoke with them. Whoa,” said Davis, an administrative analyst for the Eastern District of California. 

Thirteen reporters who had photo identification from the federal case did not have to undergo the background check, said Lt. Brian Muller, spokesman for the sheriff. The remainder of the 61 journalists who applied for credentials required the fingerprint analysis. 

So far, checks performed for 16 applicants have not unearthed any criminal activity, Muller said. If a record of a crime is found, then law enforcement and court officials will discuss whether the reporter can cover the hearing. 

The Associated Press reporter assigned to the case did not have federal court credentials and is the only reporter who has objected to the background check, Berest said. 

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, said the fingerprinting appears to violate constitutionally guaranteed press freedoms. 

“A background check may become relevant when the issuing agency has to provide security for people who are frequent targets,” Francke said. ”(Press passes) are certainly not issued to get you into a public trial, or public school board meeting. That’s a different issue entirely. I’m surprised that others aren’t balking at it.” 

The Mariposa rule only applies to the media. A few entry passes will be issued to the public for hearings and they won’t have to submit to a background check, Berest said. Everyone in the court will have to pass through a security check for weapons. 

Criminal background checks were required for reporters covering the Denver trial of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, but similar checks were not required in the high-profile case of convicted Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski in Sacramento, Davis said. 

“This isn’t the McVeigh case, this isn’t a terrorist who blew up a federal building,” said Marcia A. Morrissey, Stayner’s defense lawyer. She said the measure was very strange. 

To understand what all the fuss is about, one need only take a look at Mariposa, a county of about 16,000 residents scattered among foothills that roll up to the rugged Sierra Nevada where Yosemite is located. 

The area has seen its share of crime, but nothing has brought the notoriety – or a stampede of media – like the killer who stalked Yosemite National Park two years ago. 

Carole Sund, her daughter, Juli, and their friend, Silvina Pelosso, disappeared while staying on the outskirts of the park at the Cedar Lodge, where Stayner worked as a handyman. Their bodies were found a month later. 

Stayner, who reportedly confessed to the killings, is already serving a federal life sentence for murdering and beheading Yosemite naturalist Joie Armstrong in July 1999. That case was heard in federal court because Armstrong was killed in a national park. 

The stakes in the state case are high and Stayner faces the possibility of execution if convicted, though prosecutors have not announced whether they will seek the death penalty. 

The case made headlines around the world, where Yosemite is revered for its dramatic cliffs, tumbling waterfalls and granite domes. National and international media left footprints all over the area during the intense manhunt for the killer. 

The trial scheduled in Mariposa County is probably the biggest thing to hit town in years and officials want to make sure there are no security problems, Muller said. 

After Stayner was booked, Sheriff C.A. “Pelk” Richards held a hastily scheduled news conference to announce that Stayner had been safely transferred to the county jail. After his arraignment, Richards praised the security at the 147-year-old courthouse. 

The sheriff’s Web site looks more like the Cary Stayner home page, with his mug shot beneath the words ‘Sheriff Mariposa, CA’ and nary a sight of the county’s top cop. 

Even the editor of the local weekly newspaper has pitched in to help out, volunteering as a media liaison for an overburdened court staff. Jill Ballinger, editor of the Mariposa Gazette, said she initially offered to help because she works with the court people every day. 

“It’s been nothing but a huge pain,” she said