[The following is reprinted with permission from today’s Recorder.]
By GEORGE W. CLAXTON
GREENFIELD – News photographers were allowed to photograph the Deerfield Sunoco strangling suspect Thursday after a Superior Court judge ruled the press has a clear constitutional right to be present during routine court proceedings.
Defense lawyers must have truly compelling and specific reasons to demand that reporters and photographers be kept out of court, said Superior Court Justice Bertha Josephson in a ruling from the bench. And in this case, the defense arguments for keeping cameras out of the courtroom weren’t compelling enough, the judge ruled.
Nevertheless, as it turned out, the defendant, Dennis M. Bateman, managed to keep his face obscured from newspaper and television cameramen, whose vantage point and movement in the courtroom was restricted by the judge so as to not disrupt the proceedings.
Bateman stood stolidly with his back to the cameras that were located in the center aisle of the public gallery and, when sitting, hung his head low and covered his face with his left hand so that little could be seen beyond his shaven head and the circlet of the handcuff on his wrist.
“Of course the news media is allowed to be present and of course cameras are allowed to be present,” said Josephson. According to the judge, state Supreme Judicial Court rules say unconditionally that judges “shall permit broadcasting, televising, electronic recording or taking photographs of proceedings open to the public in the courtroom … for news gathering purposes and dissemination of information to the public.”
“The First Amendment guarantees the press the right to be present during public trials.
“The media’s right of access is derived from the public’s right to access, neither more nor less. The media is entitled to be present,” she said.
The question of press rights to take photographs in the courtroom was raised at Bateman’s arraignment, which was for larceny – not murder. Prosecutors have not charged Bateman with murder.
Bateman, 40, whose last known address was 38 Silver St., was held on $10,000 cash bail Thursday on charges of misdemeanor larceny and being a common and notorious thief, although he was also named by Deputy First Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy-Farris as a “person of interest” in the slaying April 16 of a pregnant gas station attendant in Old Deerfield.
Defense attorney Byron Caplice argued Thursday that the press has no interest in the larceny charge against Bateman and are focused on the matter only because he is a suspect in the strangulation murder of a pregnant woman.
“According to an article in the Greenfield Recorder, on May 5, 2005, vehicles belonging to his family were vandalized and graffitied overnight, with the words ‘Baby Killer’ painted on one, an obvious reference to the pregnant murder victim,” he said.
Caplice also argued that, should Bateman be released on bail, his life might be endangered by people with a vigilante mind-set who might think him guilty of the murder by virtue of being accused.
David Angier, who represented The Recorder, the Associated Press and the Daily Hampshire Gazette in the constitutional battle in Thursday’s hearing, argued that the presumption, in Massachusetts law, is that the court will be open to the press, both the newspapers and electronic reporting. He said that Caplice had not put forward any specific reasons for not photographing Bateman and had only cited “possible” and “potential” dangers if the man’s face was shown.
“The defendant has the burden of proving specific prejudice,” he said, adding that one exception to the general rule of access would be to show a “substantial likelihood of harm.”
According to Angier, the only case in which the shielding of participants was allowed by the SJC was in the Big Dan’s rape case in Fall River in which the victim submitted a lengthy affidavit that demonstrated specific problems “sufficient to permit the judge to find a substantial likelihood of harm.”
Angier said that any argument that Bateman might be prejudged by having his photograph in the newspaper can be dealt with at trial by cross-examination.
Once the judge ruled in favor of the press on the constitutional issue, she called for the arraignment of Bateman on the Superior Court indictment. Bateman was then brought into the courtroom, but The Recorder photographer and a television cameraman were ordered not to take pictures until the court was in session. By then the suspect was settled at the defense table, with his back to the gallery.
Dunphy-Farris requested that Bateman’s bail be increased to $50,000 based on his extensive record, his history of escape and the fact that he was planning to move out of the area just before he was arrested.
Caplice argued that, although Bateman has failed to show up for court before, that is not the same as running away.
“He has never left the commonwealth,” the defense lawyer said.
Caplice said that Bateman came under suspicion early in the investigation and cooperated with the police by providing fingerprints, DNA, shoe prints and other evidence that they requested. He also said that the arrest for the larceny was merely pretext to hold Bateman while the district attorney tries to find evidence to charge him with the slaying. He likened Bateman to people being held without charge as terror suspects in Afghanistan and Cuba.
“They don’t have enough to charge Mr. Bateman for the murder,” he said.
Previously, Bateman’s wife said that he was at the Deerfield Sunoco station on the day of the murder and knew the victim.
According to the defense attorney, Bateman’s failure to pay for the $4.46
pint of bourbon that triggered the larceny charge was a mistake that he rectified a few days after the shoplifting.
Dunphy-Farris said that Bateman only went back to pay for the purloined liquor because he knew that police were on to him and were investigating the theft.
“That could be seen as intimidation of a witness,” she said.
“What she calls intimidation of a witness, I call making restitution,” Caplice said hotly.
The defense lawyer also argued that, if the crime was properly charged, it would be called shoplifting and not larceny and, in that case, the felony charge of common and notorious thief could not be brought.
Bateman has been charged as a common and notorious thief on the grounds he has been convicted in the past of 12 counts of breaking and entering in the night in order to commit a larceny, nine counts of felony larceny, five counts of receiving stolen property, three counts of possession of burglar’s tools, carrying a dangerous weapon and escape from custody. He also has seven defaults on his record for failure to show up for court as required, including two such defaults in the last nine months.
If Bateman is found guilty of being a notorious thief, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.
Bateman has been ordered to return to court in June for a pretrial hearing on the theft-related charges.
You can reach George Claxton at: email@example.com or (413) 772-0261