Judge bars media payments in running death of Alabama girl; media lawyer calls order unusual

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — An Alabama judge took the unusual step of barring the media from paying for interviews about the upcoming trial of a woman charged with capital murder in the running death of her 9-year-old granddaughter.

An order by Etowah County Circuit Judge William Ogletree prohibits media organizations from offering or making payments to witnesses or parties for coverage in the trial of Joyce Garrard, 49, of Boaz.

A longtime media attorney called the order unusual and questioned whether it would hold up under scrutiny by a higher court.

It also appears to be a pre-emptive move since neither Ogletree nor lawyers has mentioned such offers during pre-trial hearings.

Garrard, who faces a possible death sentence if convicted, is set for trial next month in the 2012 death of Savannah Hardin. Authorities contend the woman made the child run as punishment for a lie about candy until the girl collapsed and died.

Garrard has pleaded not guilty, and defense lawyers blame the child's death on medical treatment decisions and health conditions they say existed before her collapse.

The judge previously issued a gag order that bars attorneys and others from making public comments outside of court, so lawyers cannot publicly discuss whether something happened to prompt the order banning payments.

Montgomery attorney Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said gag orders in high-profile cases are common, but provisions dealing with potential payments for information aren't typical.

"I have personally never seen a prohibition against paying witnesses and do not know if it would pass muster although it seems like a practice most newspapers would abhor," Bailey said in an email interview.

U.S. journalists typically are banned by ethical considerations from paying for information, and the Society for Professional Journalists has non-binding guidelines against so-called "checkbook journalism."

Ogletree's prohibition is part of an order issued last week setting ground rules for media coverage of Garrard's trial. Initial jury selection is set to begin Feb. 17.

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