FRESNO, Calif. — Responding to a news-media outcry, Mariposa court officials yesterday abandoned a policy requiring criminal background checks for reporters covering convicted murderer Cary Stayner's upcoming state trial.
The Superior Court dropped its policy — which had been solely for the news media, not the public — after news organizations and a First Amendment group said it violated press freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, said Michael Berest, the court's executive officer.
Those reporters who have already consented to the background checks can have their file destroyed, or they can pick it up from the sheriff's office, Berest added. Courtroom credentials for the trial will be issued to reporters who meet other requirements for the press pass, including employment verification from their news organizations, he said.
Chris Long, the news director at KSEE-TV in Fresno, said he was relieved the issue was over. Seven reporters and photographers from his station had submitted their fingerprints.
"From the beginning it was a concern for us on why they needed that information on our crews," he said. "We had talked to the folks in Mariposa and they said, 'That's the way it's got to be,' so we were just complying with it as best we could."
The policy had gone unchallenged until the Associated Press refused to comply last week. That action was followed by complaints from newspaper editors, media lawyers and the California First Amendment Coalition, a group concerned with open-government, free-speech and free-press issues.
In a sharply worded letter to the county's lawyer Feb. 9, Kent Pollock, the Coalition's executive director, called the policy a "highly intrusive, utterly arbitrary invasion of privacy on professionals whose work is protected from governmentally imposed burdens."
Pollock also said the policy probably violated the civil rights of reporters who consented to the review and that the coalition would provide legal representation for reporters who felt their rights had been violated.
As of Feb. 8, 16 reporters had cleared the background checks. About 30 other background checks were pending, said Lt. Brian Muller of the sheriff's office. Muller couldn't be reached yesterday for updated totals.
Under the policy, all reporters who had not received a press pass for Stayner's federal trial were required to submit their fingerprints, which were run through a state Department of Justice computer to check whether they had a criminal record.
Feb. 9 had been the deadline for submitting fingerprints, but the policy — intended to improve security at the 147-year-old courthouse — was suspended while court officials reconsidered the measure.
Stayner, 39, is accused of the murder of three tourists two years ago at Yosemite National Park. Carole Sund, her daughter, Juli, and their friend, Silvina Pelosso, disappeared while staying at the Cedar Lodge, where Stayner worked as a handyman. Their bodies were found a month later, and Stayner reportedly confessed to the killings.
Stayner has already been convicted in the beheading of another woman in the park that year and is serving a life sentence.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled March 5, but it will likely be postponed. Stayner's lawyer asked to continue the case until April 26 because she has another trial at that time.