Two Rights Make a Wrong

In a Dade jail, a TV tabloid show films a murder confession. In a Dade court, the First Amendment squares off against the Sixth Amendment.

Guillermo Vargas Martinez, a reporter for the WSCV-TV news program Ocurri cents Asi, met with prisoner Alicia De Jesus L centspez in the library of the Dade County Jail on April 7. As Vargas listened in rapt silence, L centspez, a 38-year-old Honduran immigrant awaiting trial for first-degree murder, described how she had brutally murdered her lover A on the very day she was to have buried her recently deceased husband. It was the sort of interview tabloid television reporters dream about. And it was all captured on videotape.

Ocurri cents Asi, a Spanish-language show specializing in sensationalism, had planned to air the segment two weeks ago. (The program, produced by the Telemundo network and aired locally on Channel 51, made national headlines earlier this year when it broadcast footage of a man gunning down his ex-wife in a North Lauderdale cemetery in January.) But with the intervention of the Dade Public Defender's office, the tape has instead detonated a far-reaching legal feud that pits the rights of the press against the rights of a criminal defendant. Telemundo has been legally prohibited from airing the tape until the Third District Court of Appeal rules on the matter, which could take more than a month.

The case began this past August, when Alicia L centspez called Hialeah police to inform them that she had killed her lover the night before; she wanted police to pick up the body and she wanted them to hurry, she said, because she was already running late for her husband's funeral.

The request sounded crazy. But when officers arrived at L centspez's small apartment complex on Palm Avenue, they quickly located the corpse of Antonio Juarez on the bed he and L centspez shared. Neighbors confirmed for police that L centspez's husband had died a week earlier, of natural causes. They also informed officers that the suspect had a history of psychiatric problems, which had flared since her spouse's passing.

As police cordoned off the apartment, L centspez herself sat nearby, smoking Marlboro cigarettes and describing the killing to police officer Frank Caldara, who later gave a sworn statement. She and Juarez fought, especially when he drank. He had been verbally abusive to her the night before. She had left him dozing, gone to a nearby apartment, returned with a large hunting knife, and fatally stabbed him as he slumbered. This was the same story L centspez calmly had relayed to neighbors earlier that day. She even pointed out to Caldara the abandoned lot where she had disposed of the murder weapon.

L centspez was jailed and indicted in early September for first-degree murder, a capital offense. At arraignment her public defender entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. A court-appointed psychologist evaluated L centspez and rendered the opinion that she was likely a schizophrenic who was insane at the time of the killing.

Were it not for tabloid television's appetite for gore, L centspez might have been left to await her trial in virtual anonymity. But when Ocurri cents Asi producers got wind of the murder, they sought to interview L centspez at the Dade County Jail. This past December reporter Vargas called the Dade County Department of Corrections Public Affairs Bureau to request an interview with the prisoner. L centspez consented, but Vargas had to cancel that meeting because he could not find a cameraman. In March Vargas called to reschedule. Again L centspez acceded and three weeks ago she met with the reporter.

The results of that meeting were to have aired April 12. But on April 8, Vargas called L centspez's public defender, Manny Alvarez, for comment about the case. He informed Alvarez that Channel 51 planned to air excerpts of L centspez's videotaped confession the following week.

The public defender hit the roof. Within hours he had filed an emergency motion contending that by broadcasting the segment, Telemundo would trample L centspez's Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial trial. It would be difficult, he argued, to empanel impartial Latin jurors if much of Dade's Latin community already had watched his client confess to the crime on TV. (Telemundo officials proudly note that their network reaches 85 percent of the nation's Hispanic homes.)

Alvarez's motion also assailed Telemundo for "taking advantage of a defendant who is a foreign national unfamiliar with the legal system and who has a history of psychiatric problems" and chided corrections officials for acting as "proxy attorneys to advise defendants as to whether they should completely divest themselves of their constitutional rights and give lurid confessions to television reporters." Alvarez characterized the confession as "illegally obtained" A a contention that might later be used to combat any attempt by prosecutors to introduce the Telemundo tape as evidence at L centspez's trial.

Given the sweeping powers of the First Amendment, the bid to block a media outlet from airing information already in its possession was a bold maneuver. The landmark case involving so-called prior restraint was the 1971 Pentagon Papers controversy, in which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the New York Times could publish information detailing the origins of the Vietnam War, even though Pentagon officials had deemed the material "top secret." In 1990, however, Judge William Hoeveler issued the opposite ruling, when he temporarily barred Cable News Network (CNN) from broadcasting taped discussions between deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and his lawyer.

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