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Judge orders Times photographer not to publish pictures after granting permission to take them

August 4, 2010 |  6:43 pm


Photo: Albred Tersargyan in a 2009 photo acquired by KTLA.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued an unusual order Wednesday in which she told a newspaper photographer not to publish pictures after granting him permission to take them.

The case involved Alberd Tersargyan, who was in court for a scheduled arraignment on multiple murder counts in connection with the slayings of four people, including three members of the same family between 2008 and 2010.

Judge Hilleri G. Merritt approved a written request by Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib before the arraignment to take pictures of Tersargyan.

But as the hearing got underway, Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Harmon reminded the judge about a prior order by another judge banning photography or video.

When the judge asked whether the photographs could affect potential interviews or testimony by witnesses, Harmon told her it was possible but did not object to the photographs.

Deputy Public Defender Patricia Mulligan, one of the attorneys who unsuccessfully argued for a gag order in the case, told Merritt she objected to Tersargyan being photographed.

Merritt chastised both sides for not bringing up the issue earlier, but then told Seib to immediately stop taking pictures and ordered him not to publish any of the images.

Merritt would not comment on whether the ruling amounted to a prior restraint of the press in violation of 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The record clearly reflects concerns expressed by Judge Merritt in the balance between a fair trial and free press issues,” Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said.

But Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said there was no legal reason the judge should not have allowed the pictures to be published absent a demonstration of “direct, immediate, physical harm that is not speculative.”

“The judge has the ability at any time to order the photographer out of the courtroom,” Dalglish said. “What the judge does not have the ability to do, based on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, is bar the photographer from publishing the information he lawfully collected.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has never, ever, not once, upheld a prior restraint on publication,” Dalglish noted.

Tersargyan, who was awaiting trial in the killing of an Armenian woman in March, was charged Tuesday with the 2008 slaying of the woman's husband and 8-year-old daughter, as well as the fatal sniper-style attack on a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard earlier this year.

-- Andrew Blankstein