Reno judge cites First Amendment, won’t keep witness secret
RENO, Nev. (AP) – A judge rejected a prosecutor’s attempt Wednesday to ban the media from identifying a jailhouse witness who might testify against a murder suspect, calling it an affront to U.S. freedom of the press.
Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams, a former newspaper reporter, issued a stern ruling after county prosecutors made a motion to ban publication of the convicted robber’s identity in the trial of Peter Bergna of Incline Village, Nev.
”I think it is prudent on occasion for the dissemination of public information to be limited. But except in the rarest of circumstances, those decisions are made by editors,” Adams said.
”The very integrity of government, I think, depends on the ability of citizens to observe firsthand – if they don’t have anything better to do – the workings of government,” he said.
”The request for any constraint on any publication of this trial visually or otherwise is denied.”
Washoe County Deputy District Attorney David Clifton said the potential witness feared for his safety in prison if he was identified publicly as cooperating in Bergna’s prosecution.
Bergna is accused of killing his wife by staging a wreck that sent her plunging 700 feet to her death off a mountainside near Lake Tahoe in May 1998.
Clifton said after Adams’ ruling he didn’t know if the witness still would agree to testify.
”He might say … he is too afraid,” Clifton told The Associated Press.
Clifton said he provided the witness with no assurances that his name would be kept confidential. His name already had been provided to defense lawyers.
”I told him the judge would want to talk to him about it,” Clifton said.
Nothing was said in court that would indicate what testimony the witness had to offer.
The 39-year-old prisoner took the witness stand for about 15 minutes to answer Adams’ questions. He said three weeks ago he began serving a 10- to 25-year prison term for robbery. Before that, he spent 22 months in the Washoe County Jail, where Bergna is being held.
”I understand me and Mr. Bergna wouldn’t be in the same yard. But if you put my name in the newspaper and on TV, it could cause me great damage in prison or to my family,” the inmate said.
Adams said the inmate did not qualify as a confidential informant. The inmate approached law officers with the information voluntarily and had provided similar assistance in other cases in the past.
”He knew he was likely to be a witness,” Adams said.
The judge said recent terrorist attacks against the United States make it all the more important to protect the First Amendment.
”Our country is at war. It is because of this very thing – freedom,” he said.
Adams said he once participated in a conference at the National Judicial College in Reno that involved judges from Colombia, where he said efforts to keep the judicial procedures secret have failed miserably.
”For decades they have not had public criminal trials in any case and the result has been 1.2 million cases unresolved, a conviction rate of 5 percent and instances of kidnapping and murdering judges and lawyers,” he said.
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