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Photo order reversed

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

A Superior Court judge Thursday reversed his order barring the Tahoe Daily Tribune from publishing color photos of two murder defendants.

Judge Jerald Lasarow said his Nov. 29 order was misunderstood and that it only applied to new photographs, not pictures the newspaper had already published.

“The pictures they have legally, I can’t order them not to publish them,” Lasarow said.

But attorneys for the Tribune, the Placerville Mountain Democrat and the Reno Gazette-Journal — along with lawyers for the defendants themselves — all stated they believed Lasarow’s order clearly prohibited publication of any color photos.

“Editorial decisions should be made by editors, not by the government itself,” said Jim Houpt, a Sacramento attorney representing the Tribune.

John Olson of Placerville said judges have broad authority in deciding how the media cover courtroom proceedings, but they need to show good cause before limiting press freedoms.

“What evidence do we have that a color photograph will prejudice a jury pool and a black-and-white photo will not?” he asked.

Central to Thursday’s hearing were photos published by the Tribune of Lisa Platz and James Csucsai, who are charged with murder and special circumstances that include kidnapping and use of a knife. The pair were arrested after Platz’s daughter, Rebbeca Aramburo, was found dead with her throat cut inside a tent after a police standoff Sept. 21 at Campground by the Lake.

In the Nov. 29 hearing, defense attorneys argued that extensive media coverage following the killing could taint the small jury pool in South Lake Tahoe. An estimated 9,000 to 10,000 potential jurors reside in South Lake Tahoe.

Defense counsel sought to have their clients brought to pretrial hearings in regular clothes instead of jail jumpsuits, saying news pictures of Csucsai and Platz in jail garb could prejudice potential jurors. The motion was based on high court rulings that wearing jail clothing at trial unfairly “brands” defendants as guilty.

But Houpt noted no case law exists extending the same principle to an entire jury pool, or to pretrial hearings where no jury is present.

“That’s a very weak argument on which to sacrifice the First Amendment,” he said.

Lasarow denied the defense request in November, in part because of objections by prosecutors. On Thursday, District Attorney Gary Lacy said allowing the defendants to appear in street clothes creates a security issue.

“Obviously I’m concerned about taking an unnecessary risk,” he said. “It does compromise security. If the individual attempts to escape they are not as easily recognized or identifiable.”

Security issues aside, Lasarow ended up granting the defense motion Thursday. He said the Tribune will be allowed to publish color photos of the defendants as long as they are photographed in street clothes. (The Tribune took no pictures Thursday because Platz and Csucsai were wearing jail suits at the hearing.)

Lasarow also expressed concern about the size of the jury pool and said the press has a responsibility to ensure the defendants receive a fair trial. He objected to moving the case outside South Lake Tahoe where the crime occurred.

“It would be a tremendous cost to the taxpayer to transfer this case out of the county,” he said.

Joshua Hicks, who represented the Reno paper, responded by saying, “I don’t think those concerns trump the Constitution.”

After the Tribune’s hearing concluded, Lacy said he is ready for the murder case to go to a preliminary hearing despite the fact that he has not received the autopsy report yet. He said he has a pile of evidence, 900 pages of documents as well as video and audio tapes, in his office ready to share with the defense.

Defense lawyers said they did not want to set a date for the preliminary hearing until they received a copy of the autopsy report.

Lasarow urged Lacy to look into the matter and get the report to the defense before they meet in court again Jan. 3 at 1:30 p.m.

— Michael S. Green contributed to this report.


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