NEMO reporter battles court for right to cover ex-cop's murder trial

Glenn Head

A reporter at an Edina newspaper found herself on the witness list and barred from the courtroom Monday in the case of a former St. Louis police officer accused of murder in a small northeast Missouri community.

The move by the suspectâ??s defense attorney means Edina Sentinel reporter Echo Menges is barred from the courtroom for the duration of the trial. Itâ??s a move Menges and publisher Mike Scott believe was a deliberate attempt to keep her from covering the case.

â??As soon as I got the subpoena, I knew they were trying to keep us out of the court,â?? Menges said Monday.

The case in question involves Glenn Head, 60, a former St. Louis Metro Police officer charged with second-degree murder in the Dec. 11, 2012 shooting death of his neighbor William â??Billâ?? Bacon, 67, of Novelty.

The Sentinel hired an attorney and filed a motion to quash the subpoena and allow Menges to cover the trial.

â??Defendant clearly intends to exclude Ms. Menges from trial with no intention to call her as a witness, simply to thwart her protected First Amendment newsgathering activities,â?? the motion offered by the paperâ??s attorney Joy Ahern said.

A hearing on that motion was held Monday morning before jury selection. First Judicial Circuit Judge Gary Dial refused to throw out the subpoena which meant Menges was forced to sit in sequestration with all of the other potential witnesses in the case.

Members of other media outlets were allowed in the courtroom Monday. Scott says he plans to attend Tuesdayâ??s proceedings and cover the case in Mengesâ?? stead.

â??Clearly it's a First Amendment issue and we feel we should be in there having a right to report on it,â?? Scott said.

The drawn-out murder case was assigned to Dial, who is also the presiding judge of the judicial circuit that covers Clark, Schuyler and Scotland counties. The charges were originally filed in Knox County, but the trial was later moved to Clark County, and eventually Randolph County, where jury selection began Monday.

Menges has covered the story for The Sentinel since Dec. 11, 2012.

Dial continues to preside over the case that also saw him grant a defense request forcing The Sentinel to remove publicly available documents from its Web site.

The Sentinelâ??s issues with the court began in November 2013 after it published public records related to Headâ??s case obtained from the Clark County Circuit Clerkâ??s office. The documents included a motion related to evidence defense attorney John James, of the James Law Group, was trying to keep from going before the jury.

â??I think we probably rubbed the defense the wrong way by publishing those motions,â?? Menges said. â??It's my job to gather information and disseminate it to the public and that's what I've done.â??

Jean Maneke, attorney for the Missouri Press Association, called the move a clear effort to keep Menges out of the courtroom despite the paperâ??s willingness to cooperate with the court and the defense attorneyâ??s earlier requests.

â??Itâ??s also clear to those of us who know the facts of the situation that this reporter didnâ??t witness anything,â?? she said. â??I would hope there is no attorney in the state of Missouri that would abuse the court in that fashion. Thatâ??s an abuse of due process and an abuse of the judicial system.â??

The case against Head involved an ongoing dispute with Bacon. An initial report said that Head and Bacon feuded over whether a country road was opened or closed. The evening in question, the men got into a dispute and Head shot Bacon in the leg and in the chest. Bacon died later after being flown to an area hospital.

St. Charles, Mo. defense attorney Charlie James, also of the James Law Group, is expected to argue that his client acted in self-defense.

According to documents obtained by KHQA, the evidence Headâ??s attorney wanted barred from the trial included:

â?¢ Statements that Bacon made shortly before he died referring to an audio recording he made before he was shot. A tape was never recovered.

â?¢ Testimony that Head told fellow neighbor Don Roper that he was worried about going to prison and additional testimony that Roper previously threatened Bacon and would interrupt Baconâ??s hunting excursions.

â?¢ Information related to Headâ??s career as a police officer in St. Louis, including the fact that he was involved in a shooting during his tenure with the department.

â?¢ A statement that when Roper arrived, Head was holding a cassette tape player that was in Baconâ??s pocket at the time of the shooting.

â?¢ Any statements about the fact that Head hired an out-of-town attorney from St. Charles, Mo.

The defense argued that any public information about the case could taint the jury pool.

Scott said that, in addition to being asked to appear before the judge at a hearing related to the documents his paper published, he was also asked to compile information from the paperâ??s Web site about the number of people in Clark County that followed the Head murder case. He was never required to present that information in court.

In his Nov. 8, 2013 order, Dial said he acted only in the interest of granting Head a fair trial.

â??In entering this order, the Court is mindful of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution granting individuals and entities access to criminal proceedings,â?? Dial wrote. â??However, that right must be balanced against a defendantâ??s right to a fair trial.â??

The paper agreed to take down the documents, but only on a limited basis.

Dial also ordered the case sealed. He also granted a request to have all further information about the case stricken from the stateâ??s public court portal CaseNet. This meant that basic information about the case including the dates and times of future hearings is not available to the public.

Scott also believes the paperâ??s request to have a camera in the courtroom continued to draw the ire of the court and the defense.

Menges said the subpoena request to have her as a witness in the case is particularly unusual since her knowledge of the case, her sources and the documents published on The Sentinelâ??s Web site were obtained through on-the-record sources and information available to any member of the public.

â??They said that Iâ??m a material witness because I interviewed other witnesses in the case,â?? she said. â??I would argue that the information I collected was as a journalist. We have a very limited means to defend ourselves financially and weâ??re a very small staff. Iâ??m the only reporter.â??

KHQA spoke with Missouri Attorney Generalâ??s Office. Spokesman Eric Slusher said he would look into the matter. He did not return calls as of 6 p.m. Monday.

University of Missouri School of Law professor and First Amendment expert Sandy Davidson said that judges are within their rights to impose gag orders on the media during cases as a way to preserve the purity of the jury pool. However, she said the witness subpoena in Menges instance could act as an indirect gag order on the reporter.

â??The judge could have slapped a gag order on the reporter. He could have done an indirect gag saying that no one should talk to the press. This is perhaps a way of accomplishing the same thing,â?? she said. â??I canâ??t recall of any scenario quite like that. It doesnâ??t mean that it hasnâ??t happened before.â??

The newspaper could have some recourse to fight the issue in court, but Maneke said the battle would be a costly one.

â??Itâ??s not an easy task and itâ??s not something you can do in the middle of the trial,â?? she said.

Headâ??s trial is expected to continue Tuesday.

A message left for Dial Monday was not returned.