LA Judge Backtracks on Press Photo Blackout in Murder Case

This photo provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety shows Ramon Escobar. (Texas Department of Public Safety via AP)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press prevailed Thursday in a challenge of a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge’s order blocking media outlets from publishing photographs from the arraignment of a man who is charged in the murders of homeless men.

Judge Gustavo Sztraicher vacated his order during a Thursday afternoon hearing, during which an attorney representing the media organizations argued the judge’s prior restraint was presumptively unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, an attorney representing Ramon Escobar, 47, asked the judge to bar outlets from publishing images from the arraignment hearing, because there could be “identification issues” over his image being broadcast in the news.

Authorities have charged Escobar in the attacks of sleeping men – mainly homeless victims – during a two-week spree throughout LA County this month.

Escobar was arrested Monday and charged in court Wednesday on several counts including murder, attempted murder and second-degree robbery. Police say surveillance footage shows Escobar rummaging through victim’s belongings after he beat them with a wooden baseball bat or a pair of bolt cutters.

Three men were beaten to death, according to investigators, who say Escobar approached six other men sleeping in isolated areas of Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

During a brief window at Wednesday’s hearing, photographers were able to set up in the courtroom and take pictures of Escobar before his attorney objected citing a potential eyewitness that could be compromised if Escobar’s image was published.

On Thursday, Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Friedman argued the media is required to give fair notice when they want to photograph or shoot video of clients. She said the media request to film at Escobar’s hearing was faxed on Wednesday and the order was not signed by the court.

Attorney representing the media outlets, Dan Laidman of Davis Wright Tremaine said the media cannot be restrained from covering a hearing because of “ministerial technicalities.”

“From the media’s end, they followed the law, they followed the court’s direction,” said Laidman at Thursday’s hearing.

Friedman noted the court’s order has not kept the media from reporting on Escobar, but publishing new images could impact future proceedings.

“It’s clear an ongoing investigation will be tainted by the dissemination of the recent photos,” said Friedman.

Deputy District Attorney Victor Avila told Judge Sztraicher the investigation that led to Escobar’s arrest is not based on eyewitness accounts, but on extensive investigative work from law enforcement and prosecutors.

Escobar listened to his attorney while handcuffed at the wrists and waist. He wore a blue padded vest and did not enter a plea.

Sztraicher agreed with the media outlets’ argument and said the photos taken by the media on Wednesday were lawfully obtained. Three separate images were circulated prior to Wednesday’s hearing, including a mugshot photo of Escobar from Houston, Texas.

According to Houston Police, Escobar is wanted in connection with the disappearance of his aunt and uncle, Dina and Rogelio Escobar, who were last seen in late August. The charred remains of Dina Escobar’s vehicle were found in Galveston, Texas, and Houston police said they suspect foul play.

Escobar was questioned by authorities but was not arrested. He turned up in Santa Monica, California, in early September.

Law enforcement said Escobar, an El Salvador national, has been deported six times and was described by the LAPD as a felon with multiple convictions including burglary and illegal re-entry into the United States.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Associated Press that Escobar was released from custody after he won an appeal in immigration court in 2016.

Branden Ridout, Kelvin Williams, and Steven Cruze died of blunt-force trauma in the attacks. The final victim, Cruze’s body was found under the Santa Monica Pier on September 20.

Escobar is scheduled to be arraigned on November 8.

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