Media ban lifted in actor-activist’s murder trial

Thursday, February 26, 1998

LOS ANGELES (AP)—A judge who prohibited news coverage of two opening statements in the trial for the murder of Oscar-winning actor Haing Ngor lifted his ban Tuesday, but said that was only because the prosecutor’s speeches turned out to contain nothing sensitive.

Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith, who ousted reporters from court Monday, said he decided to rescind his order after hearing the three separate opening statements by prosecutor Craig Hum.

The case involving the killing of the Cambodian activist is being tried with three separate juries one for each defendant.

Smith said he acted “in an abundance of caution,” excluding the press because he thought Hum might refer to material which at least one jury should not hear. He has told jurors to avoid media reports, but suggested the news would reach them anyway.

When court reconvened Tuesday, Smith said he now knew that the two statements from which reporters were excluded were almost identical to the third speech for which they were allowed to be present.

“The court will reverse and let the press have the transcript of the opening statements,” said Smith.

“Yesterday, in front of the jurors, the court removed some people from the press,” the judge said. “In front of the jury, I’ll apologize for it.”

But at another point he said, “I made the ruling and I stand by it.”

Attorney Kelli Sager, representing The Associated Press and other news organizations, had been preparing an appeal of the ruling when the judge reversed himself. She said she was glad the press would have access to the transcripts, but it was no substitute for in-person coverage.

“Reporters were unable to personally observe the openings and are left with dry transcripts,” she said.

Lawyers for defendants Tak Sun Tan, 21; Indra Lim, 20, and Jason Chan, 20, asked for the ban on press coverage during two of the opening statements.

In testimony Tuesday, a police officer raised questions which have persisted about whether the Ngor killing was the result of a street robbery.

“It was odd,” Sgt. Lewis Wiggins said of the scene outside Ngor’s apartment. “He appeared to have property that if somebody had robbed him they would have taken it.”

Wiggins, who rushed there the night of Feb. 25, 1996, said he found Ngor lying in a pool of blood beside his gold Mercedes-Benz automobile. The keys were in the ignition, he said, and there was money in some clothing on the back seat.

The Cambodian-born Ngor, 55, won an Academy Award for his performance in “The Killing Fields,” the 1984 film about his native country. When he was killed, speculation arose that he had been the victim of a political assassination.

But police subsequently arrested three alleged members of the Oriental Lazyboys gang and said the killing was a street crime.

Defense attorneys say police arrested the wrong people.

The three were ordered to stand trial together, but the case became complicated when they gave separate statements to police. Their lawyers asked for three trials. The judge ordered three juries instead a procedure used only once before in California.

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