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What greater purpose is served knowing details of 8-year-old’s death in light of guilty plea?

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POSTED May 29, 2010 2:46 a.m.
Do we really need to know the sordid details of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu’s death?

Cantu was the Tracy girl found in a suitcase that had been tossed into an irrigation pond. Melissa Huckaby of Tracy has since confessed.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus made the right decision when she ruled against the Associated Press, the Bay Area News Group, and The Stockton Record in keeping the gag order in place. Lofthus based her ruling on the fact the case was not over as sentencing hasn’t taken place. She also noted that it was in the interest of justice to preserve the plea deal as well as the integrity of the process.

The judge indicated she’d reconsider the request after sentencing.

Why, though? What is the overwhelming need for the public to know? Is the cause of justice advanced by knowing exactly how Sandra was killed or whether she suffered – details that an autopsy report would yield? Is the victim’s family incensed by the deal? Obviously not because they welcomed the judge’s decision and had an attorney argue on their behalf against lifting the gag order.

Is there an overwhelming concern that the prosecutors botched the case somehow or the police trampled on the accused’s rights? There certainly can’t be if the accused – who is now the guilty – voluntarily participated in the plea deal.

What about public safety? Do any of the news organizations think there is a possibility that if parents of other young kids had access to the information of the case against Huckaby that somehow they can protect their children better? Perhaps, but let’s get down to brass tacks. Way too often the media hides behind “the public’s right to know” to basically produce “riveting” snippets they can flash across the screen or splatter across the top of a newspaper to snag viewers and ultimately advertisers.

Our rights aren’t absolute. There is a reason why free speech, for example, is tempered by things such as not being able to yell “fire” in a crowded theater or using language in a deliberate or reckless manner that incites riots.

The odds of justice not prevailing is much greater in the hundreds of more mundane cases that the courts may seal documents or impose gag orders on during the course of the year. Why not challenge those? Obviously the media can’t challenge every court gag order as they never have the resources or – more importantly – the justification in their minds that somehow it is needed.

Yes, the Cantu case is a high profile case. The court has never tried to block the media from the process in the court room. There is no pattern in this case of the judicial system – or law enforcement for that matter – running roughshod over the public’s right to know.

Have the public’s resources such as tax dollars been squandered in this case? Is there a pattern of the defense attorney cutting deals at the expense of clients’ rights?

None of this was brought up in arguments to lift the gag order. It was simply the public’s right to know.

Right to know what besides the fact there was a murder? The defendant obviously isn’t challenging that. How is the public’s interest served by providing everyone with the gory details of an 8-year-old’s last few minutes on earth?

The media often debates the need for judicial restraint as an important part of the process but we never seem to debate media restraint.

To see where an “everything goes attitude” will take civilization, simply go to some of the more coarse websites where they will post just about anything about anyone all in the name of “the public’s right to know” as if they are white knights out to preserve the constitution.

In reality, they are often nothing more than bullies who believe free speech comes without responsibilities.

Doesn’t Cantu’s family have a right to have the autopsy with details of Sandra’s death sealed from public view since Huckaby admitted her own guilt and there was no public trial? The courts have never said the prosecution or defense has to turn over all of their evidence and notes to the public through the press once a trial was completed in addition to transcripts and official court filings and other legal papers. So why should the courts require the same thing in a case where the defendant has openly admitted guilt as part of a plea deal that spares the victim’s family the pain of a trial and the public the expense of one?

In all honesty this isn’t about being a watchdog for judicial malfeasance or wrongdoing by law enforcement. It is all about having access to gory details that quite frankly serve no purpose now that Huckaby has admitted guilt before going to trial.
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