ATLANTA -- The judge who wanted to close the pretrial hearing of one of four people accused of murdering six Mexican immigrants reversed himself on Monday, agreeing with several media outlets who petitioned to keep the courtroom doors open.
In addition to overturning his own June 1 oral order, Tift County Superior Court Judge Gary McCorvey also agreed that motions filed in the case should remain open, instead of being sealed as defense attorneys had wanted.
The Associated Press, The Tifton Gazette and the Moultrie Observer filed a motion asking McCorvey to reconsider his order.
Jamie Underwood faces the death penalty on murder charges stemming from a series of at least four home invasion attacks on Sept, 30, 2005 in and around Tifton.
The brutality of the killings, in which the victims were beaten, shot and, in at least one case, raped, shocked the thousands of immigrants who have flocked to south Georgia to pick vegetables, tobacco and peaches.
In his ruling, McCorvey wrote that the U.S. and state constitutions require extraordinary measures "to ensure the reliability of decisions regarding both guilt and punishment in a case in which the government is seeking to punish a human being by extinguishing his life."
Still, he said he was reversing his prior stance "with some substantial reservations."
"(T)his Court does not hereby sanction, nor can it lawfully tolerate, the media publishing or airing 'speculation about matters ... having no basis in fact,' " he wrote. "Neither does this Court sanction, nor can it lawfully tolerate, the media publishing or airing reports which describe 'in a manner disparaging of legal procedural safeguards in general of the Defendant and his attorneys in particular.' "
Attorney David Hudson, who represented the media outlets, said Monday that McCorvey made the right decision.
"I'm sure that the media will be mindful of the judge's statements about responsible reporting," he said. "It is a credit to Georgia's judicial system that its judges are not reluctant to reconsider earlier rulings in order to reach the right result."
McCorvey ordered that 41 defense motions filed in the case be made available to the public by court clerks and that all hearings on those motions and court transcripts will be open.
He also ruled that television and still-photography cameras will be allowed in the courtroom during the trial, again reversing a previous order.
The Monday ruling didn't specifically address a gag order McCorvey placed on all participants in the trial, but Hudson said he believes that order also is overturned because the judge reversed his previous orders.
Underwood and Stacey Bernard Sims face the death penalty on charges including murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, burglary and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
Two women, Jennifer Lafay Wilson and Emma Jean Powell, were indicted on the same charges, but prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty against them.
All four are black, stirring local speculation that the attacks were racially motivated. However, police have said there is no evidence of that