Four D.C. area news outlets filed court papers Monday objecting to a motion filed last month by the defense in the Robert Wone civil trial asking a judge to prohibit all lawyers involved in the case from speaking to the news media.
In a little noticed development, attorneys representing gay defendants Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward filed an Oct. 8 motion in D.C. Superior Court asking for an order barring the attorneys from making “extra-judicial statements” about the case to anyone outside the courtroom.
“Most of the media coverage has clearly implicated the defendants of some wrongdoing, premised upon multiple inaccurate and untruthful assertions of the Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for the District of Columbia,” the defense motion states.
“The press coverage is necessarily having the effect of poisoning the jury pool, which [threatens] to make it impossible for the defendants to find an impartial jury,” it says.
The three defendants have been named in a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit in connection with the 2006 murder of D.C. attorney Robert Wone, who was stabbed to death in their upscale townhouse near Dupont Circle.
Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge found the men not guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and evidence tampering in connection with the murder. No one has been charged with the murder.
The men have said an intruder killed Wone after entering the house while the three were asleep in their bedrooms and while Wone spent the night in a guest bedroom at the house after working late at his nearby office. Wone and the men were longtime friends.
In a motion filed Monday, the D.C. blog Who Murdered Robert Wone, Washingtonian magazine and Allbritton Communications Company on behalf of WJLA-TV, News Channel 8, and the recently created local news website TBD.com asked the court for permission to intervene as third party opponents of the defense motion.
“The gag order, if granted, would constitute a prior restraint on speech that would strip media interveners’ First Amendment rights by barring them from speaking with either party’s counsel to gather information about the case,” the media outlets said in the motion.
“To safeguard their constitutionally protected rights to gather and report on news, which would be obliterated if the gag order is entered, media interveners respectfully move this court for permission to intervene … so they can oppose the gag order’s overbroad and unconstitutional prior restraint of speech,” the motion says.
In their motion seeking the order barring the lawyers from speaking about the case outside the courtroom, the attorneys representing the gay defendants cited an example of what they called a highly inappropriate statement by an attorney representing Katherine Wone, Robert Wone’s widow and the lead plaintiff in the case.
“On September 16, 2010, one of plaintiff’s attorneys, Patrick M. Regan, addressed a collection of reporters outside the court house, where he made numerous statements about the case, including the following quote: ‘Defendants don’t assert their fifth amendment rights if they are not guilty of something.’”
Regan was referring to an earlier statement in court by defense attorneys that the three defendants planned to decline to answer questions on the witness stand at trial by invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to make self-incriminating statements in a legal proceeding.
“This patently incorrect and inflammatory statement served no legitimate litigation purpose, but its public dissemination likely caused substantial prejudice to the defendants by ‘poisoning the well’ of potential jurors,” the defense motion says.
Attorneys representing the media outlets disputed that assertion. They noted that the civil trial is not scheduled to take place for at least a year and that the court process for screening potential jurors would prevent the selection of jurors incapable of rendering an impartial verdict.
They also noted that defense attorneys made strong statements to the media denouncing the government’s evidence and arguments during the criminal trial, where the defendants exercised their right not to testify.
Katherine Wone’s attorneys filed a separate motion on Oct. 25 opposing the gag order proposal.
“For more than four years defendanrts and their counsel have actively sought to use the media to convince the public that their clients had no involvement in Robert Wone’s murder and coverup,” the Wone attorneys’ motion says. “Plainly, defendants have enjoyed their ‘right to present their side of a dispute to the pblic…’ Mrs. Wone should not now be denied that same right.”
Superior Court Judge Brook Hedge is expected to issue a ruling on the media outlets’ motion to intervene and on the defense motion to bar the lawyers from discussing the case outside the courtroom within the next several weeks.