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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2014 - Updated: 8 months ago

MEDIA AND THE COURTS

Defense attorney to headline panel on legal issues

Lawyer says he won’t be speaking about ex-NFL player’s murder case

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sultan Sultan
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A Boston attorney defending former NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez against a murder charge will be in Toledo this week to talk to lawyers, judges, and journalists about high-profile cases such as that one.

But don’t expect Jamie Sultan to mention Aaron Hernandez.

“The trial judge has strongly admonished all counsel about making extrajudicial statements about the case, and I anticipate she will be issuing a formal gag order shortly,” Mr. Sultan said.

Gag orders, which bar attorneys and others involved in a case from talking to the media or the public about a pending case, are among the topics to be explored at a seminar Friday titled, “Presiding Over, Litigating, and Covering High-Profile Cases: Rules, Approaches, and Problems.”

Sponsored by a new group called the Alliance of Judges, Lawyers, and Journalists, the seminar is supported by The Blade and the Toledo Bar Association, which is offering lawyers three hours of continuing legal education for attending.

Mr. Sultan, the keynote speaker, has been seeking a gag order in the Hernandez case, which most assuredly falls into the “high-profile” category. The former New England Patriot is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, 27, a semipro football player who was found June 17 in an industrial park not far from Mr. Hernandez’s suburban Boston home. Mr. Lloyd had been shot five times.

In a phone interview, Mr. Sultan said it’s unusual to seek a gag order but necessary “when I believe that the release of information by opposing counsel or their agents — meaning usually police officers and other law enforcement agents — is likely to interfere with my client’s right to a fair trial and likely to poison the atmosphere in which ultimately I have to pick a jury and try the case.”

While his only comment is “no comment” about the Hernandez case, Mr. Sultan said there are plenty of times when it is not only appropriate but advantageous to speak to reporters about a case — when it’s important for the public to understand the defendant’s position, including some cases of self-defense or a political defense.

Mr. Sultan said lawyers are first and foremost governed by rules of conduct that prohibit them from making statements that are likely to prejudice the proceedings in some way.

“If I believe it’s in my client’s best interest to talk to the media, I’ll talk to the media consistent with the disciplinary rules,” he said. “If I believe it’s not in my client’s best interest to talk to the media, I won’t talk to the media. To me, that’s the test.”

What bothers him most about media coverage of the courts, Mr. Sultan said, is what he sees as a growing trend toward sacrificing accuracy in the quest to report constantly something new and different about a case.

Sensationalism, he said, seems to trump digging for the truth.

“It’s getting worse from my perspective, given the pervasiveness of the Internet and how quickly things move from first being posted to going viral,” he said.

“Once something’s out there, it’s very difficult to erase that from the public conciousness,” Mr. Sultan added.

“I think the media has a tremendous amount of power, and it can be exercised irresponsibly,” he said.

U.S. District Judge James Carr, an advocate for expanded public access to federal court, also will speak at Friday’s seminar, which will feature panel discussions by judges, media representatives, and lawyers.

The goal of the gathering and other events the Alliance of Judges, Lawyers, and Journalists plans to hold in the future is to get the three groups talking, said Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda, one of the organizers.

“We each have a role to play, and sometimes the roles we are obligated to perform can conflict,” he said. “I see this as the start of a dialogue on all of our roles and limits.”

Fritz Byers, an attorney who represents The Blade in First Amendment issues, said lawyers, judges, and reporters each have a job to do, and the alliance was created to help them better understand each other’s positions.

“We chose the subject of high-profile cases because those tend to be the cases that draw the most media attention,” he said. “All parties are under the most scrutiny.”

The free public seminar runs from 1:30 to 4:45 p.m. at the McMaster Center at the Main Library downtown. For lawyers seeking CLE credit, the cost is $50. Lawyers should contact the Toledo Bar Association to register.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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