A reporter covering a high-profile murder trial in Tulare County Superior Court this week was told by the judge to leave the courtroom and not to publish evidence discussed in open court.
But the Superior Court’s presiding judge got involved and said “it was not appropriate to exclude the media from the courtroom.”
On Tuesday, Visalia Times-Delta reporter Sheyanne Romero was covering the murder trial of Christopher Cheary, who is charged in the murder and sexual assault of 3-year-old Sophia Acosta. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
The jury was absent as the judge ruled on motions about evidence, she said.
She took notes as defense attorneys and the prosecutor were discussing the transcript between Cheary and two Exeter police detectives.
She was soon the only person in the public seating area, Romero said.
In hindsight, it was not appropriate to exclude the media from the courtroom and they will not be excluded from any open forum.
Gary Paden, Tulare County Superior Court’s presiding judge
Romero has been a reporter at the Times-Delta for six months. Previously she was a reporter at the Foothills Sun-Gazette weekly in Exeter.
Judge Joseph Kalashian called over the bailiff and asked who she was, she said. Romero identified herself as a Times-Delta reporter.
“I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but you can’t publish anything that’s been discussed,” Romero remembers the judge saying. “He didn’t give me a reason why.”
Kalashian soon told her “You can leave now,” so she walked out and contacted her editor.
Times-Delta news editor Eric Woomer said the newspaper contacted the court administration for an explanation.
About two hours later, Presiding Judge Gary Paden issued a statement confirming that Kalashian asked a reporter to leave the courtroom and to not report on the evidence rulings.
The judge acted out of “an abundance of caution,” he wrote. “The court did not want this information to prejudice the jury in any way.”
But Paden indicated the exclusion shouldn’t have happened.
“The court takes First Amendment rights very seriously,” Paden wrote. “It was not the court’s intent to infringe on the media’s First Amendment right. … In hindsight, it was not appropriate to exclude the media from the courtroom and they will not be excluded from any open forum.”
California Newspaper Publishers Association legal counsel Nikki Moore said reporters have the same right to be in the courtroom as any member of the public. Twice, the U.S. Supreme Court has established procedures for when judges can close a courtroom, she said.
“It requires a fact-specific analysis by the judge and it must be articulated to the public why the judge wants to close the courtroom,” she said. In this case, “the court failed to articulate any reason.”