PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. Superior Court Judge Netti Vogel is being challenged over an order that permanently bars reporters from speaking to jurors who earlier this month convicted a Pawtucket man of murdering his 10-year-old daughter.
The Providence Journal filed the lawsuit after Vogel issued two orders, one barring all contact with jurors who convicted the man — Jorge DePina — and another blocking release of the list containing their names.
“No one, no spectator, no one in the spectator section of the courtroom, is permitted to contact my jurors,” Vogel said from the bench April 6, a transcript shows. “If the jurors choose to contact anyone, that’s up to them.” She said it was for their “protection.”
“If you see them at Walmart, do not acknowledge that you know them,” Vogel added. “In other words, I do not allow people to contact jurors. They must be left alone to go on with their lives.”
In a court filing, The Journal’s lawyers argued that Vogel’s orders “impair the communication of news and commentary on current events.”
“Constitutional and common law rights of public access to judicial documents, records, and proceedings mandate that the newspaper be granted access to the juror list and be permitted to interview jurors willing to speak with the newspaper,” they continued, saying the case involves “important constitutional interests.”
Vogel, 71, was appointed to the bench in 1994 by Gov. Bruce Sundlun. Craig Berke, a spokesman for the state judiciary, said court officials do not comment on pending litigation.
The Journal quickly received support from other First Amendment advocates.
“We have the right to ask questions,” Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said in a statement. “It’s a freedom protected by the First Amendment and essential to our understanding of the court system. This gag order amounts to a prior restraint which our constitution simply doesn’t allow.”
The New England First Amendment Coalition also sent a letter in support of The Journal to Associate Justice Maureen Keough, who is hearing the challenge to Vogel’s orders. (WPRI 12 reporter Tim White serves on the coalition’s board.)
While the attorney general’s office usually represents state leaders sued in their official capacities, in this case Vogel and the court are being represented by Marc DeSisto because the attorney general’s office prosecuted the underlying murder case.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook