Oklahoma paper challenges judge’s decision to close hearing
MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma newspaper on Tuesday challenged a judge’s decision to ban the public from a hearing in the case of a Muskogee man accused of killing six people, including five children.
An attorney for the Muskogee Phoenix filed a motion to intervene in the case after District Judge Bret Smith barred a reporter for the newspaper and two other members of the media from attending a preliminary hearing in the case on Monday.
Telephone calls to the judge’s office on Tuesday rang unanswered, but the judge told a reporter for the Tulsa World that he closed the hearing because of a deprived-child matter he was hearing simultaneously in the case involving surviving children and their mother.
While it is common for deprived-child hearings to be closed to the public, barring reporters or the public from a preliminary hearing is highly unusual, said Kathryn Gardner, an attorney with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who is representing the Muskogee Phoenix.
“To the extent the juvenile proceeding needs to be conducted in private pursuant to Oklahoma law, the Court should conduct it separately to ensure public access to the preliminary hearing,” Gardner wrote in her motion. “The Court should also order disclosure of the preliminary hearing transcript of August 9, 2021 (with limited redactions necessitated by the statutory provisions concerning juvenile proceedings) to further public access to portions of the preliminary hearing that were previously closed.”
Gardner said she expects the judge to take up the matter when the preliminary hearing is scheduled to resume on Wednesday.
Ed Choate, the Muskogee Phoenix publisher, said in a statement the newspaper made the motion on behalf of its readers.
“The public’s right to know is paramount in a free society,” Choate said. “It’s especially important in our criminal justice system.”
Jarron Deajon Pridgeon, 26, of Muskogee is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the February shooting deaths of his brother and five young children, all under the age of 10. The children’s mother also was wounded in the shootings. Pridgeon also faces felony charges of shooting with intent to kill and possession of firearms after conviction.