Judge kicks defiant reporters out of L.A. courtroom

Tuesday, February 24, 1998

LOS ANGELES (AP)—Reporters were ousted from the trial of three men charged in the killing of Oscar-winner Haing Ngor when they refused to comply with a “blackout” order issued by the judge.

Judge J.D. Smith said Feb. 23 he was issuing a “blackout” on the opening statements because of the unusual nature of the trial, which has three juries. Each jury was scheduled to hear a separate opening statement.

He asked reporters in the courtroom to agree that, if they stayed, they would not report what was said by Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum as he outlined his case against the three men.

The Associated Press told the judge it could not agree to withhold information.

“In that case, all press is out of the courtroom,” the judge declared.

A handful of reporters in court left and opening statements proceeded.

The judge’s concern was prompted by the fact that some of the defendants have made statements implicating their co-defendants. Smith is seeking to shield jurors from that information until it comes out in testimony.

Normally, lawyers outline in opening statements the evidence they expect to be presented and testimony that will come from witnesses.

The contents of tape-recorded interviews with the defendants could be played or discussed during opening statements.

The Cambodian-born Ngor, 55, was shot to death in 1996. Ngor won an Oscar for his role in the movie The Killing Fields.

The defendants, alleged members of the Oriental Lazyboys, a Chinatown street gang, are accused of killing Ngor in a robbery outside his home. Their lawyers initially asked for three separate trials because of the recorded statements potentially implicating themselves and each other.

The law severely limits use of such statements, particularly if a defendant does not testify.

Rather than order the cumbersome procedure of three separate trials with many of the same witnesses, Smith came up with the idea of one trial and three juries.

The three-jury procedure has been used only once before in California—in a San Diego case—and the judge there called it “an extremely stressful event.”