Philadelphia papers attack gag order in murder case

Wednesday, March 18, 1998

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Lawyers for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to lift the gag order in the Lisa Michelle Lambert case.

PNI, which publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, argued in the lawsuit filed Tuesday that the gag order violates the First Amendment rights of the press and the public.

The gag order, issued March 6 by Lancaster County Court Judge Lawrence F. Stengel, essentially forbids anyone associated with the case from speaking with news reporters.

Lambert is appealing her 1992 murder conviction at the state level. She had been set free by a federal judge who ruled that she had been framed by Lancaster County prosecutors and police, but a federal appeals court reversed that decision last month.

“This is a matter which has raised substantial questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system. It is a matter of significant public interest and concern,” reads the lawsuit.

“The order effectively stifles virtually everyone involved in the case–the parties, counsel, witnesses, the victim’s and defendant’s family members and countless others. And for what compelling purpose? PNI submits there is none,” the lawsuit says.

Stengel, who said Tuesday that he would reconsider the gag order at the end of the month, had no comment about the lawsuit.

Lambert was sentenced to life in prison by Stengel in 1992 after a nonjury trial in which she was found guilty in the slashing death of Lancaster teen-ager Laurie Show.

She spent five years in jail before being set free in April by U.S. district court Judge Stewart Dalzell.

She remained free until February, when the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Dalzell’s ruling because Lambert had not exhausted her state appeals.

When he issued the gag order, Stengel said he was concerned that lawyers would be “distracted” from their duties if able to speak to the media.

“This court can see no good reason why the parties and their counsel must or should make public statements regarding their strategy, their opinion as to the credibility of their opponents, their opinion as to the veracity or credibility of witnesses … and the merits of their opponent’s legal arguments,” Stengel wrote. “While these statements may provide compelling headlines, they serve no purpose in the litigation process.”

On Thursday, the attorney for Lancaster Newspapers, which publishes the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, sent Stengel a letter asking him to reconsider the gag order from the point of view of both the media and the public.

“At a more practical level,” the letter from George C. Werner said, “Lancaster Newspapers believes that the order will serve only to heighten the public concerns about the integrity of the judicial process in this matter.”