The Las Vegas Review-Journal and The Associated Press on Tuesday sent letters to court officials protesting the detainment of about a dozen journalists in a courtroom until Michael Jackson's deathbed doctor had left the building.
The reporters were covering a hearing to decide whether Dr. Conrad Murray should be jailed for failing to pay more than $15,000 in child support. After the mother agreed to forgive the unpaid child support, Murray freely walked out of Family Court with his five lawyers.
It was a different story for the journalists and others in the courtroom. As they tried to exit, an armed court bailiff blocked their path and said they couldn't leave. He didn't offer an explanation.
After several minutes, enough time for Murray to reach his car and leave, the reporters were freed.
"I've heard of reporters having to crash a meeting to cover something that should be open, but I've never heard of a reporter having to break out of a courtroom to cover the news," said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association. "What was the purpose? Public safety? It sounds more like it was to prevent public scrutiny."
Chief Judge T. Arthur Ritchie, who oversees district and family courts, said the bailiffs were trying to ensure Murray's safe exit after one of his lawyers expressed concern after encountering journalists on the way into the building.
"There certainly was no motive to keep him away from the press," Ritchie said. "They did what they thought was best for safety and security."
It was unclear which of Murray's five lawyers made the request. Chris Aaron, the lawyer handling the child support case, could not be reached for comment Tuesday, as his voice-mail box was full.
"He felt threatened and obviously felt concerned for his safety in general," Ritchie said. Those security concerns centered on the reporters and potential confrontations in the court hallway or stairway, he said.
Reporters in the courtroom included representatives from local news organizations and several celebrity news outlets such as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and TMZ.
Murray, a cardiologist who lived and worked in Las Vegas, had been hired as Jackson's personal doctor for the pop star's London concert series and tried to resuscitate him before he died in June. Murray had remained in hiding since then as authorities in Los Angeles investigated his role in Jackson's death.
At Monday's hearing, only two cameras, one from a local news station and one from The Associated Press, were allowed in the courtroom. The rest were stationed outside.
Mary Hausch, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the detainment was "outrageous," especially since unarmed reporters could hardly be considered security concerns.
"The doctor got away without being interviewed, just like he got away without paying child support," she said.
Ritchie said it is common practice in contentious Family Court hearings to keep one party in the courtroom while the other leaves the building, but he admitted the bailiffs should not have held the reporters.
"The court would do it differently, certainly, in the future," he said.
After reviewing the incident, Ritchie said no one would be disciplined because nobody did anything wrong.
Review-Journal Editor Thomas Mitchell called the detainment a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment "right of the people to be secure in their persons" and a violation of the First Amendment protection of the free press. Mitchell said he hoped Ritchie would send a strong message to the bailiffs about the inappropriate detainment.
"A free press without access is a mockery," Mitchell said. "Yes, the throngs of tabloid reporters and cameramen at such celebrity events are unseemly and embarrassing to our profession, but it is not the role of bailiffs to assume the job of editor and decide who gets to ask questions and who doesn't.
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281.