It is the most publicized shoplifting case of the year. It is the only publicized shoplifting case of the year. When word got out Aug. 12 that KTVK (Channel 3) meteorologist Kim Dillon had been arrested on suspicion of stealing $400 worth of clothes from a northeast Phoenix Dillard’s store, television news stations breathlessly reported the development.
The case will likely continue in the spotlight and is one of the latest examples of how defense attorneys, prosecutors and police attempt to manage inevitable pretrial publicity in a way so they can get their messages out without damaging the defendant’s shot at a fair trial. Almost every prosecutorial and police agency has full-time staff dedicated to media relations and trained to stay within the confines of ethical rules that govern pretrial publicity. Defense attorneys know a few good words about their client can be helpful to their case.
Dillon, who has since been fired from her television job, hired Beverly Hills, Calif., defense attorney Debra Opri, who has seen both sides of the media as a legal analyst on cable news shows and was a lawyer for Michael Jackson’s family during the pop star’s criminal trial earlier this year.
Opri said she was hired primarily to defend Dillon in court but also to help manage "an overreaction, a certain publicity that wouldn’t come out with normal folk."
"She doesn’t want publicity," Opri said. "She wants a fair trial."
Prosecutors and police say they want that too — not just for Dillon, but all criminal defendants. They say they have an additional obligation, however, that makes for a delicate balancing act.
"The public has a right to know what this office does," said Barnett Lotstein, a prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
When an arrest is made or an indictment returned in a high-profile case, prosecutors often announce the development at a news conference.
All attorneys are bound by an ethical rule that restricts the amount of information they can discuss publicly during a pending case, Lotstein said.
"We’re extremely conscious of that," he said.
But the rule does allow for discussion of any information that is already public record, such as indictments and police reports, he said.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton often spend as much time refusing to answer questions as they do answering them at news conferences because of the rule. Charlton is fond of saying he is sticking to the "four corners of the indictment."
"People are frustrated when we have little or no comment," said Andrea Esquer, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
But once a case gets publicity, the damage is done to the defendant, said defense attorney Richard Gierloff.
Gierloff advertises "media control" as part of his services, something he said is important in today’s mediadriven society.
The media "inherently feeds on sensationalism and damaging your client."
"Sometimes you can get some information to play out that works to your benefit," said Gierloff, who has handled numerous high-profile clients. "If you’ve got anything good, you want to get it out there."
Although Dillon has agreed to some interviews to address her firing from the station, she isn’t talking about the case itself, Opri said.
Dillon tried without success to keep television cameras out of Maricopa County Superior Court for her arraignment, her local attorneys arguing in written pleadings that allowing them would serve no interest "other than lurid or morbid curiosity."
The attorneys said the publicity would make it difficult to pick an impartial jury.
Lotstein, who led the prosecution attempt of former Gov. Evan Mecham and witnessed or has been involved in numerous high-profile cases in which the publicity was "legion," said he can’t recall a case in which the court decided that publicity would harm the defendant.
"In a major city, the chances of affecting the jury pool are very slim," he said.
Police aren’t subject to the same ethical rules as lawyers, so their approach to pretrial publicity is slightly different.
But they said they are also concerned about protecting the rights of the defendant.
All police departments assign at least one public information officer, or PIO, to deal with the media, usually a sworn police officer.
Detective Tim Gaffney, Mesa police spokesman, said the information that his department releases is usually in response to media inquiries and all information is provided unless it would hinder an investigation or reveal police tactics.
Gaffney said Mesa will issue news releases when there is a public safety interest or when looking for more victims of a specific suspect.
His job is to provide only the facts, no opinions or disparaging remarks about suspects, Gaffney said.
"We don’t try to spin stories," he said.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said his public information people are careful in providing information and he has never held a news conference or released information to intentionally harm a defendant.
But as an elected official, he has more leeway to speak his mind.
"I may go a little further and say, ‘This guy should be roasted,’ " Arpaio said.
Even when he and his people are careful to limit information in order to protect an investigation, he’ll see the information they tried to restrict the next day in the newspaper, gleaned from court documents such as search warrants and arrest forms.
"If the press wants the story, they get it," Arpaio said.