Soares asks media not to identify trial witnesses in killing of 10-year-old

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Date: Tuesday, January 6, 2009

ALBANY -- In a rare tactic against witness intimidation, District Attorney David Soares' office asked the news media on Monday not to publish the names of witnesses who testify in this week's trial of a teenager charged with killing 10-year-old Kathina Thomas.

Jermayne Timmons, 16, faces up to 15 years to life in state prison if convicted of murdering the young Guyana-born girl outside of her First Street home in West Hill on May 29.

As jury selection in the second-degree murder trial started Monday, Soares' office asked news outlets -- including the Times Union -- to withhold the names of some of the witnesses in open court. At least five news outlets, including the newspaper, appeared open to the request.

"As you aware, there are issues with witness intimidation," Assistant District Attorney David Rossi told reporters outside the Albany County courtroom in which the case will be tried before County Judge Stephen Herrick. "If we start seeing names in the (media) on day one, I think it's going to make it difficult to have witnesses on the stand on day two and three."

Soares has labeled the reluctance of witnesses to come forward and a "don't snitch" culture as the top obstacle in prosecuting street crime. But Soares, who was elected in November to a second four-year term, has never before asked the press to waive its First Amendment right before a trial and not publish names of witnesses who testify.

That includes two murder trials within the last year involving allegations of gang membership and a teenage defendant.

Heather Orth, a spokeswoman for Soares, said she believed four television stations agreed to not reveal the witnesses' identities.

"It was just a request," the spokeswoman said. "We had (witnesses) who were concerned. We passed their concern to the media outlets."

Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union, said the newspaper would try to comply with the district attorney's request for the duration of the trial, should it be convinced that children's safety would be compromised. He said the newspaper has previously withheld names of rape victims and juvenile offenders at times.

"Because we're talking about children as witnesses, the standard that we would apply is raised," Smith said. "We will review, on a case-by-case basis, whether there is an overriding public interest in identifying the witnesses. My sense is that our stories will not be compromised by withholding these names."

Smith said was concerned about the request setting a precedent, adding, "This is not something I expect to see on a long term basis. Open courtrooms are a fundamental of American society."

Timmons is accused of picking up a "community gun" at a shed near his apartment at the Ida Yarbrough Homes and riding on a bicycle to West Hill, where, fearing he would be shot, he fired the gun at a rival and killed the girl with the weapon's .45-caliber bullet.

In speaking with reporters outside the courtroom, Rossi declined to discuss the details of the prosecution's case but said "we've charged the right person" with the crime.

Moments earlier, Deputy Public Defender Peter Lynch told reporters his client had been in the area of the shooting on May 29 but did not fire the lethal shot. Lynch said his client contests an alleged statement and apology he gave to Albany police.

A jury was finalized about 5:40 p.m. Opening arguments are expected to begin sometime after 9:30 a.m.

Robert Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at rgavin@timesunion.com.