CLEARWATER — Borrowing a page from the widely covered George Zimmerman case, a Pinellas County circuit judge on Friday refused to issue a gag order to stop Jennifer Mee, known as the “Hiccup Girl,” from talking to news organizations before her first-degree murder trial begins Tuesday.
This week, prosecutors filed an emergency motion asking Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley to put a stop to the interviews with the “Today” show, “Inside Edition,” and the “Dr. Phil Show,” among others. They said if the public was inundated with publicity about Mee immediately before the trial, it would make it tough finding 12 impartial jurors.
On Oct. 23, 2010, Mee and two accomplices, Laron Raiford and Lamont Newton, lured 22-year-old Shannon Griffin to a dark alley in St. Petersburg, promising to sell him $60 worth of marijuana, according to police. The robbery went awry, though, and Griffin was killed.
Raiford was convicted in Griffin’s death last month and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2007, Mee became known to millions as “Hiccup Girl” for her inability to stop hiccupping for five weeks when she was 19.
Ley scheduled a hearing for Friday and asked that Mee’s attorney, John Trevena, put off the interviews until she had made a decision.
Scott D. Ponce, an attorney for Holland & Knight who represented more than a dozen media outlets in the George Zimmerman case, spoke at Friday’s hearing in Mee’s case. Representing the “Today” show, Ponce argued that prosecutors had failed to produce evidence to show that the scheduled interviews would make it impossible to impanel a jury,
Much as he did at the Zimmerman trial, Ponce said it’s not enough to merely show that there is pretrial publicity. Prosecutors have to show that such publicity would have such an effect on the public that it would be impossible to get 12 impartial jurors. In Mee’s case, prosecutors had not done that, he argued, and Ley agreed.
“I don’t think they have met their burden at this time,” the judge said.
Media interviews with Mee are scheduled for Monday at the Pinellas County Jail. It’s not known when they will air.
Like Ley, the judge in the Zimmerman case refused to issue a gag order to prevent those involved with the case from discussing the proceedings. Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Travon Martin in July.
The best way to determine if a prospective juror has seen so much publicity on a case that he can’t be impartial is to ask them during jury selection, Ponce argued.
Ley, as if anticipating difficulty in impaneling a jury, said she had requested a bigger pool of candidates from which to choose and would be conducting jury selection in a bigger-than-usual courtroom. Still, she believes a jury can be impaneled, she said.
Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson had argued that Trevena’s goal with the interviews was to try and create a favorable impression of Mee with the public, some of whom might turn out to be prospective jurors.
Trevena admitted as much on Wednesday after prosecutors filed their motion.
Davidson suggested Ley could muzzle Trevena “to control professional conduct.” And Ley wondered aloud whether Trevena’s comments to the media about creating a favorable impression of Mee were at odds with his remarks in court earlier, when he told Ley the interviews wouldn’t involve anything with the case.
In a previous appearance on the “Today” show, Davidson noted, Mee said she hadn’t done anything wrong. The fact she had become something of a celebrity, after it was discovered she couldn’t stop hiccuping, “went to her head,” she said on the show.
In Mee’s previous appearance, she also talked about how she missed her family while awaiting trial behind bars and said she was particularly upset over having missed her grandmother’s funeral.
If convicted as charged, Mee faces life in prison.