Court reconsiders background check for reporters

The Associated Press
Saturday February 10, 2001

FRESNO — Mariposa court officials are reviewing a policy requiring criminal background checks for reporters covering the case of Yosemite killer Cary Stayner. 

News editors who were surprised to hear about the novel restriction imposed on the media – but not on other members of the public – challenged the measure Friday that they claim violates the Constitution.  

A public interest group concerned about free press issues said the county may have violated the civil rights of reporters. 

Editors at the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News wrote letters Friday officially protesting the constraint, and editors at The Fresno Bee planned to phone the court to challenge the policy. 

“Any citizen can go watch a trial,” said San Francisco Chronicle Managing Editor Jerry Roberts.  

“To try and impose some special restrictions and sanctions on news organizations because they’re covering a trial is a clear violation of the protections of a free press.” 

County officials said they required the background checks for security purposes in the historic little courthouse in the foothills of the Sierra. 

No threats have been made on Stayner’s life, but county officials wanted to make sure there were no rogues in the gallery. 

Michael Berest, the court’s executive officer, said he thought he was following the procedure used during Stayner’s case in U.S. District Court in Fresno.  

But federal court officials said they never checked to see if reporters had criminal records. 

“It is being re-evaluated,” Berest said Friday.  

“We understand the concerns that have been raised and we are looking at it very seriously.” 

No member of the media had questioned the policy until The Associated Press protested  

this week.  

The Supreme Court has upheld the right of the press and public to attend criminal trials for years, said Kent Pollock, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. 

The coalition – a network of citizens, journalists, attorneys and public officials concerned with open government, free speech and free press – lodged a letter of complaint with Mariposa County.  

Pollock said the group would be willing to file a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of reporters who had consented to the background check. 

“By requiring background checks on reporters and not the general public, the county is imposing a highly intrusive, utterly arbitrary invasion of privacy on professionals whose work is protected from governmentally imposed burdens,” Pollock wrote in a letter to the county counsel. 

At least 16 reporters had passed the criminal background check by Thursday, after their fingerprints were analyzed by a Department of Justice computer, said Lt. Brian Muller of the Mariposa Sheriff’s Department. 

Berest said a Friday deadline to submit fingerprints for analysis was on hold as court officials reviewed the policy. 

Stayner, who is serving a life sentence for murdering Yosemite naturalist Armstrong, faces trial in Mariposa on charges that he murdered three tourists visiting the park. 

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 and Stayner reportedly confessed to the killings. 

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 5 in the case, but is likely to be postponed.  

Stayner’s lawyer filed a motion to continue the case until April 26. Prosecutors are not contesting the motion, said defense lawyer Marcia A. Morrissey.