DAs blogging - just a bad idea, or actionable?

District attorneys - angry at newspaper coverage - offer one-sided attacks on the media. Many lawyers consider it a bad idea, but some defendants are fighting back in court.

Blogging offers a powerful tool for getting one's message out there, for providing transparency on the inner workings of government and for speaking directly to the public. But it's obviously not always appropriate for government to blog - especially on sites the public pays for. Several California prosecutors are blogging, The San Francisco Chronicle reports, and they're raising eyebrows.

Ed Jagels, district attorney for Kern County, for instance, launched a blog solely to lambast what he sees as the inaccurate reporting of the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. Actually "blog" might not be the word for it all. Jagels has written a number of columns which are posted as PDF files. The effort is raising eyebrows.

"Prosecutors are supposed to stay above the fray. They have to give the public the idea that they are impartial, unbiased," said attorney Diane Karpman, who writes an ethics column for the California Bar Journal. Blogging could impair their "ability to prosecute cases in a fair and objective manner," she said.

"It's not seemly, and I don't think it's appropriate," Karpman said.

All the more so since Jagels terms his effort "a public service provided by prosecutors of the Kern County district attorney's office."

The intent, Jagels said, was to post a weekly analysis of the Californian's crime reporting; each would be written by a prosecutor who would outline the paper's "false claims, distortions and shoddy journalism."

It might be unseemly but since Jagels isn't discussing current cases, it's no more than that.

A series of postings by district attorney George Kennedy attacking the San Jose Mercury News' coverage of a rape case is the subject of a libel suit by the defendant, whose conviction has been overturned. Damon Auguste has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Ordinarily, the guilty plea would be the end of it, but the DA's office is using the website's press release page to continue to strike back at the Mercury's coverage.

Stephen Barnett, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law and expert in First Amendment issues, said Kennedy and other blogging prosecutors could find themselves in hot water -- particularly if they do not appear to be keeping an open mind.

"District attorneys aren't supposed to try their cases in the press," he said. "They often do, of course. But this is not a D.A. standing up once on the courthouse steps and saying 'We got our guy.' This sounds like a continuous publicity effort."

Moreover, DAs that reveal details of defendants' rap sheets may get kicked off of cases. An opinion by former state Attorney General Bill Lockyer prohibits prosecutors from disclosing any information that details a defendant's rap sheet.

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