Hearst Lawyers Will Fight Sweeping Gag Order in Mass Murder Case

Prosecutors claim that on August 8, David Conley slipped in through an unlocked window at the northwest Harris County home where his ex-girlfriend, Valerie Jackson, lived with her husband and her six children. From there, authorities claim, Conley put all eight family members in handcuffs and then, one by one, shot them in the head.

Following Conley's initial court date Monday, he's spoken out in interviews with KTRK and the Houston Chronicle. While Conley, who has been charged with capital murder, wouldn't discuss Saturday's events, he told the TV station: "I was doing my part as God asked me to do. God asked me to help them...God says in the Bible thou shall not disrespect thy mother and thy father. I'm highly spiritual. I'm not crazy. I'm not like that." In an interview with the Chron, Conley called Jackson's husband Dwayne “a demon,” saying, “He was a bad person. He (was) not on God's side.” When asked this week whether prosecutors would push for the death penalty, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson called the decision a “no-brainer” (she did say, however, that the final decision wouldn't be made for three to four months).

So it should come as no surprise that Loretta J. Muldrow, Conley's court-appointed attorney, wants to shut her client's mouth. However, Muldrow's request for a gag order, which state district court Judge Vanessa Velasquez signed Wednesday, goes well beyond barring media from simply “conducting or attempting to conduct an interview” with Conley outside his lawyer's presence – an understandable request from an attorney with a client like Conley.

Instead, the sweeping three-page gag order signed by Judge Velasquez this week threatens to quash any in-depth coverage of this case as it heads to trial. Local media outlets are barred from publishing “any witness accounts” that would implicate Conley in the crime. There will be no TV cameras, photographers or sketch artists allowed into the courtroom to cover the proceedings. Anyone wanting to write about or comment on Conley's trial can only reference facts introduced in front of the jury, which is almost never the full story. That means any information or evidence discussed in an open courtroom but outside the jury's presence will be barred from publication until the case is over. Reporters are even barred from writing about an upcoming hearing to suppress evidence in the case.

This is all troubling for a couple of reasons. First, this case unfortunately is not just another heinous mass murder. Serious questions have been raised about whether the child welfare system failed Jackson's six children. State Child Protective Services workers had been involved with the family since at least 2011. As the Chron reported earlier this week, the children were removed from Jackson's home after deputies found her seven-year-old boy, whom caseworkers described as “special needs,” wandering in the middle of a busy intersection at night.

But despite numerous complaints that the children were abused or neglected, Judge Glenn Devlin ordered the children to be returned to the Jackson home in October 2013. CPS caseworkers again asked that the children be removed last year, but the judge refused. In a rare move for a sitting judge, this week Devlin issued a four-page statement defending his actions. “At no time did CPS state that there was a current or immediate threat of violence from anyone,” Devlin wrote.

It's also unclear why it took Harris County Sheriff's deputies no less than four welfare checks over the course of 13 hours to break down Jackson's door on Saturday. When Jackson's brother called 911 Saturday morning to say his sister had just sent family text and Facebook messages saying Conley was inside her home, armed and angry, a simple records check would have revealed Conley's long, violent history with Jackson. In the past, Jackson had told police Conley cut her in the neck, punched her in the face and then wrapped an electrical cord around her child's neck. In fact, Conley even had an active arrest warrant, having been accused of slamming Jackson's head into a refrigerator just last month.

Yet for some reason, the Harris County Sheriff's Office didn't force entry until Saturday night, after a deputy circling the house peered through a window and spotted a dead body.

And then, of course, there's the whole First Amendment issue. The Chron, to its credit, is fighting the gag order and reported this morning that Hearst Corporation lawyers plan to file a motion today to vacate the gag order. “The order is an unconstitutional prior restraint on the media that is staggering in its sweep and a clear violation of the Texas constitution and the First Amendment,” Jonathan Donnellan, deputy general counsel for Hearst, told the daily.

Executive Editor Nancy Barnes was quoted in her own paper this morning saying, “We will continue to aggressively cover this story under the privileges guaranteed by the First Amendment.” We wish them the best of luck. While Conley certainly deserves a fair trial, the public also deserves answers. 

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