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Last updated on Thursday, March 29, 2012
(UNDATED) - Prosecutors around the state may find themselves curbing what they say to the media.
Maureen Hayden, CHNI Bureau Chief, reports a mid-March decision by the Indiana Supreme Court to reprimand a former prosecutor for statements he made to the press about a high-profile murder case is giving other prosecutors pause.
Former Greene County Prosecutor David Powell, who now heads the Indiana
Prosecuting Attorneys Council, and other legal experts believe the court's reprimand of former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi also conveyed a message to other prosecutors around the state - they need to resist the temptation to make their case in the court of public opinion rather than the court of law.
The reprimand, said Powell, was a reminder "that prosecutors don't have a First Amendment right to say whatever they want to say."
Brizzi was reprimanded for comments he made to the media about a 2006 mass murder case in which he described the evidence as "overwhelming" and said one of the defendants needed to get the "ultimate penalty" of death.
The comments, made after charges were filed against the defendants but before the case went to trial, violated the professional rules of conduct for prosecutors, the supreme court found.
Joel Schumm, a professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said the court's reprimand of Brizzi will likely have a chilling effect on other prosecutors.
"It's likely to lead to more restrained press releases and public statements from prosecutors," Schumm said.
Indiana's rules of conduct for attorneys allow prosecutors to release information about a criminal case before it goes to trial. But the rules also require prosecutors to help protect a defendant's right to a fair trial and an impartial jury. Prosecutors are also required to prevent law enforcement from releasing information that could create pretrial publicity that would prejudice a jury against a defendant and impact the outcome of a trial.
The rules are laid out, but prosecutors have interpreted them differently, Powell said.
No more. The decision by the court in the Brizzi matter spells out the expectations much more clearly.
It more strictly interprets a current rule that allows prosecutors to cite information contained in a public record. In their decision, the justices said those "public" records only mean public government records, including probable cause affidavits.
What prosecutors aren't to include in their comments is information from media reports about a case or the prosecutor's assessment of the evidence or strength of the case.
The justices also said prosecutors are obligated to include in the each statement they make the assertion that a criminal charge is only an accusation and that the defendant is presumed innocent until proved guilty.
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