Judge cites First Amendment in decision to allow reporter to cover trial

Thursday, August 20, 1998

A newspaper reporter has won her fight to cover the corruption trial of Eufaula, Okla., Mayor Joe Johnson.

A McIntosh County judge cited the First Amendment last week as he rejected a request by defense attorneys to exclude Muskogee Daily Phoenix reporter Donna Hales from covering the criminal trial.

District Judge Steven Taylor, however, did not remove Hales' name from a potential witness list.

The mayor and his attorneys claim Hales has been biased and unfair in her coverage of allegations against the mayor including bribery, embezzlement, conspiracy and false claims against the state. The defense had requested that Taylor sequester Hales in a witness room during the trial.

The paper's attorney, Michael Minnis, said that Hales has been covering the events preceding the trial, which began on Monday, and therefore she is the “natural person” the newspaper would assign to cover the trial.

“The judge said that, in light of the First Amendment, reporters should not be excluded from the courtrooms,” said Minnis, a First Amendment attorney.

If Hales had not been successful in obtaining last week's ruling, the “impact would be that defendants could prevent newspapers from having the reporter who has the most knowledge of the case … report on the case,” Minnis said.

“For example,” Minnis said. “If you had a particularly aggressive reporter who put a story together, the vindictive defendant who thinks he got 'bad press' coverage from a reporter could abuse the system by requesting that that reporter not be allowed to cover a trial, impinging on the First Amendment rights of the newspaper and the reporter.

“… That's the thing you've got to watch out for: people threatening to get back at newspapers exercising their First Amendment rights by asking [that they] be excluded. You can't manipulate the press, particularly a small newspaper. This could fairly well cripple a newspaper.”

Dan Elliott, executive editor of the Phoenix, said that Hales “is the one who helped break the original story, and is by far the most qualified person to cover the trial. This put us in the position of fighting to keep her in the courtroom to cover the trial.

“Any time you get into a situation where you have defense lawyers asking about the news gathering process, you run the risk of endangering the integrity of the process,” Elliott said.

Oklahoma City attorney John Coyle represents Johnson's co-defendant Randy Bridges. Bridges, a Eufaula businessman, is charged with false pretenses and conspiracy.

Coyle said that he was not terribly concerned about Hales attending the trial. Instead, his main concern was to keep her on the witness list. Since Hales tape-recorded a phone conversation in which Bridges discussed the charges with an ex-girlfriend, Stevens ruled that Hales must be available if called to testify as a witness.

“Journalists are an extremely important part of the justice system,” Coyle said. “Rarely do they make themselves a witness, but she can explain certain things on the tape recording and put them in context.

“Journalists contribute greatly to a public trial, and a public trial is one of our most important rights,” Coyle said.

Attorney Mack Martin, representing the mayor, has not returned phone calls.