ACLU Asks Court to Lift Gag Order in California Murder Case

October 25, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES–The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a friend of the court brief today on behalf of attorney Tony Capozzola, who is under a gag order that prevents him from discussing a client’s case or any related issues, such as mental health, with the media.

“A gag order stifles and undermines the free and full discussion which is so vital to the public good,” said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. “Imagine if the attorneys or plaintiffs in Rampart-related cases, for example, were laboring under a gag order – our understanding of the need for reform would be greatly diminished.”

Capozzola’s client, Marie Elise West, is charged with murder and hate crimes after allegedly using her car to run down and kill a Latino man in Van Nuys earlier this year.

Prior to the incident, Ms. West had received treatment in the county mental health system. The ACLU believes that due to Ms. West’s stay in a public mental facility, the public has an interest in a full discussion of the issues raised by the case.

“Look at the facts: Did the county mental health system work? Was there negligence?” said Eliasberg. “Do mentally ill people receive adequate and timely treatment in this county, and, if not, how does that affect their own and the public’s safety? These are compelling current issues, questions which this case urgently raises for the consideration of the public.”

Although, the City of Los Angeles has yet to justify the gag order, it believed that it was ordered to prevent pre-trial publicity from prejudicing the jury pool.

“Courts have ruled that in a county as large as Los Angeles,” with a correspondingly large jury pool from which to select, the likelihood of prejudicing the entire jury pool through pre-trial publicity is generally too small to justify a gag order,” said Eliasberg, “A restriction of speech this severe requires the government make the justification.”

The gag order, already in effect, will be challenged in today’s hearing before the Superior Court of the State of California.

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