OAKLAND, Calif. — A gag order in the case of a former Bay Area transit officer charged with murder in the shooting death of an unarmed man will remain in place, a judge has ruled.
The order was imposed last month, during a bail hearing for 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle. He has pleaded not guilty to one count of murder in the New Year's Day shooting, which grabbed national attention after cell-phone videos of the incident began circulating on the Internet.
Mehserle's attorney, Michael Rains, had argued against the gag order, saying it limits him from fighting negative publicity about his client. Rains said that in the hundreds of news stories on the case, most of them were negative toward Mehserle.
"I didn't see one report (about the Jan. 30 bail hearing) ... in the media where it said Mr. Rains said his client was sorry," Rains said in court on Feb. 13, adding that his client would "forever feel terrible about what happened."
Rains said the negative press coverage could prejudice potential jurors.
Numerous protests have sprung up against Mehserle, who is seen on the videos shooting an unarmed Oscar Grant in the back while the 22-year-old man lay facedown on an Oakland train platform. Rains has said his client may have mistakenly pulled his pistol instead of a stun gun.
In denying the request to lift the gag order, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson said on Feb. 13 that it was Rains who was trying influence the jury pool.
"I want this case tried in a courtroom not in the newspaper," Jacobson said. Rains "wishes to influence a potential jury pool not in a controlled environment of a courtroom but in the press."
Jacobson said he decided to impose the gag order after learning that Rains' bail motion with the names of 17 potential witnesses in the case was posted to a newspaper Web site shortly after the bail hearing.
Jacobson said he was not planning to release that motion because he thought the witnesses names could affect the trial.
The California First Amendment Coalition also had filed a motion to lift the gag order.
On Feb. 13, Jacobson also extended the order to include attorneys, law enforcement and potential witnesses, and specified 10 areas of information that could not be discussed outside of court. Those areas include statements about any evidence that could be used in the trial, statements about expert-witness testimony and statements about any potential witnesses in the case.
Mehserle is currently free after posting $3 million bail. He is due back in court March 23 for a preliminary hearing.