Houston Chronicle

July 5, 2001, 8:40AM

Chronicle asks court to lift gag order in Yates case

By ALAN BERNSTEIN
Houston Chronicle

The Houston Chronicle is asking an appeals court to throw out a gag order on lawyers, police and witnesses involved in the Andrea Yates capital murder case.

State District Judge Belinda Hill imposed the order June 26, saying that public comments would increase publicity about the case and could interfere with finding an unbiased jury for Yates' trial.

Yates, 37, of Clear Lake, has admitted drowning her five children in a bathtub June 20.

The newspaper is arguing to the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals that the gag order is unconstitutional. The ban is not needed to preserve Yates' legal rights, and Hill failed to support her order with evidence or consider less restrictive approaches, Chronicle lawyer William W. Ogden wrote.

Hill declined to comment today. Yates lawyer Wendell A. Odom Jr. said he could not comment because the gag order might prevent him from discussing an attempt to dissolve it.

The nine-judge appeals court has asked Hill, prosecutors and defense lawyers to respond to the Chronicle's request in writing by Friday before deciding whether to conduct a hearing on the issue.

Defense lawyer Robert Scott, who was appointed to represent Yates after she told the judge she lacked the money to hire a lawyer, asked for the gag order. But Scott was quickly replaced by Odom and George Parnham, who were hired by some of Yates' relatives. Odom and Parnham objected to the gag order.

Ogden objected on the behalf of the Chronicle at the June 26 hearing, but Hill refused to consider his argument, saying he was not part of the capital murder case.

In court papers filed Monday, the Chronicle argued that previous court rulings on gag orders show that Hill should have publicly heard evidence on whether the order was needed. Instead, the judge met with defense lawyers and prosecutors in private before announcing the ban on public comments.

Court rulings also require that Hill consider alternatives to a gag order, such as special questioning of potential jurors to see if publicity had affected their objectivity or moving the case to another county, the Chronicle argues.

Yates is in Harris County Jail awaiting a July 24 court appearance.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle