Background checks for reporters nixed

The Associated Press
Tuesday February 13, 2001

FRESNO — Mariposa Superior Court officials decided Monday to reverse a policy that required criminal background checks for reporters covering the murder trial of Yosemite killer Cary Stayner. 

The court withdrew the requirement after news organizations and a public interest group said it violated press freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, said Michael Berest, the court’s executive officer. 

Reporters who consented to the background checks can have their file destroyed or can pick it up from the sheriff’s office, Berest said. Courtroom credentials will be issued to reporters who met other requirements for the press pass, including employment verification from their news organizations. 

The news director at KSEE-TV in Fresno said he was relieved the court rescinded the policy. Seven reporters and photographers from the station had submitted their fingerprints. 

“From the beginning it was a concern for us on why they needed that information on our crews,” said news director Chris Long. “We had talked to the folks in Mariposa and they said, ‘That’s the way it’s got to be,’ so we were just complying with it as best we could.” 

The policy went unchallenged until The Associated Press refused to comply last week. That was followed by complaints from newspaper editors, media lawyers and the California First Amendment Coalition, a group concerned with open government, free speech and free press issues. 

In a sharply worded letter to the county’s lawyer Friday, Kent Pollock, the First Amendment Coalition’s executive director, called the policy a “highly intrusive, utterly arbitrary invasion of privacy on professionals whose work is protected from governmentally imposed burdens.” 

Pollock also said the policy likely violated the civil rights of reporters who consented to the review. He said the coalition would provide legal representation for reporters who felt their rights had been violated. 

As of Thursday, 16 reporters had cleared the background checks. About 30 other background checks were pending, said Lt. Brian Muller of the sheriff’s office. Muller couldn’t be reached Monday for more current totals. 

Under the policy, reporters who did not have a press pass to cover Stayner’s case in federal court were required to submit their fingerprints, which were run through a state Department of Justice computer to check whether they had a criminal record. 

Friday was the deadline to submit the fingerprints, but the policy – intended to improve security in the 147-year-old courthouse – was suspended while court officials reconsidered the measure. 

Stayner, 39, is awaiting trial for the murder of three park tourists two years ago. 

Carole Sund, her daughter, Juli, and their friend, Silvina Pelosso, disappeared while staying at the Cedar Lodge, where Stayner worked as a handyman.  

Their bodies were found a month later and Stayner reportedly confessed to the killings. Stayner is already serving a life sentence for murdering a woman who led children on nature tours at the park.  

A preliminary hearing is scheduled March 5, but it will likely be postponed. Stayner’s lawyer asked to continue the case until April 26 because she has another trial at that time. 

On the Net: 

California First Amendment Coalition: http://www.cfac.org