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In a rare move, a Mississippi court has issued a gag order to silence a defense attorney who had been accused of attempting to rally public support to get his 14-year-old client-charged with capital murder-out of jail on bail. The seventh-grade honor student, Tyler Edmonds, has been held without bail in the adult population of the Oktibbeha County Jail since May. He is charged with murdering the ex-husband of his half-sister. She is also charged in the case. Because of his age, Edmonds faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, not the death penalty. The attorney for the boy, Jim Waide of Tupelo, Miss.’s Waide and Associates, alleged that the local district attorney sought the Oct. 14 gag order because she’s worried about the “public knowing about how the boy is being done and how he’s being kept in jail without bail.” State v. Tyler Edmonds, No. 2003-0132-CR (Oktibbeha Co., Miss., Cir. Ct.). Patricia Faver, the 16th circuit district court assistant DA, refused both pre- and post-gag order requests for comment. Such a sweeping gag order-which includes potential witnesses-early in “a low-profile case is rare,” said Erwin Cherminisky, a constitutional law expert at the University of Southern California. The U.S. Supreme Court has never addressed the issue of the kind of gag order that might pass constitutional muster. There is not even agreement among the federal courts of appeal on whether gag orders are prior restraints of free speech, or whether gag orders should be judged under a “reasonable likelihood of harm” standard or the much stricter “imminent threat of a specific nature” standard. A lawyer’s duty? Cherminisky said that pretrial publicity has little or no effect on jury verdicts and that there are less restrictive means of assuring a fair trial, such as changing the venue when necessary. “This seems a particularly important case for the defense lawyer to be able to speak out because there is a 14-year-old being held in an adult jail population,” Cherminisky said. “Who else but his lawyer can speak on behalf of this kid?” Waide has taken the bail issue up to the Mississippi Supreme Court twice and lost. The trial, which was set for Oct. 27, has been continued until Jan. 5, 2004, at Faver’s request, to ameliorate the taint to the jury pool allegedly caused by media coverage. Waide opposed the continuance on the ground that that it denied Edmonds a speedy trial. Judge James Kitchens Jr.’s order prohibits “statements or information intended to influence public opinion regarding the merits of this case.” Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution does not require bail in “capital offenses when the proof is evident or presumption great.” The facts of the case are essential in determining whether bail should be set for the capital crime. Edmonds would be entitled to bail in a noncapital case. The May 10 murder was charged as a capital crime because it was alleged to have occurred in the course of a robbery. State habeas and bail hearings open to the public before the gag order show that a computer and other items were taken from the home that the murder victim and Edmonds’ half-sister, Kristi Fulgham, shared, although they were divorced. Waide told the court that the computer belonged to Kristi Fulgham. “How could Tyler help his half-sister rob her own home?” Waide rhetorically asked in a pregag order interview. Edmonds first denied participating in the murder, then confessed without his mother or an attorney present, while being urged on by his half-sister, a deputy sheriff testified at a hearing at which Waide sought bail. Edmonds, testified the deputy, said he held the rifle while Fulgham came around him and, as Edmonds looked away, pulled the trigger, her finger over his. He then went into the next room and cried. Police have not discovered a motive for Edmonds’ participation, but noted that Fulgham seemed to have a lot of influence over him. On the fourth day of custody, again without his mother or counsel present, he was reinterviewed and recanted his confession, alleging that he had been pressured by Fulgham to claim responsibility. Post’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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