Public barred from Alta. assault hearing

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Dustin Paxton was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one count of forcible confinement in August 2010. His preliminary inquiry runs this week, but the judge has banned members of the public from attending over fears of a "proliferation of internet information," his lawyer said

A Calgary court has made the rare move of barring members of the public from a preliminary inquiry into a high-profile assault case.

Jim Lutz, one of two lawyers for Dustin Paxton, said this week the defence team sought the ruling from provincial court Judge Brian Stevenson because of a "proliferation of internet information" he fears might be prejudicial to his client.

"We're just worried about Mr. Paxton receiving a fair trial if that information gets spread through unchecked sources," Lutz said.

Paxton, 30, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one count of forcible confinement in August 2010 in connection with a long-running series of alleged attacks on a Regina man from December 2008 to March 2010.

On April 16, 2010, the man was dropped off at a Regina hospital with injuries his family said were indicative of torture. The allegations drew widespread media coverage.

Lutz said it's "a very uncommon ruling."

"My first thoughts on this was sooner or later, this was bound to happen," Balfour Der, a Calgary defence lawyer, said of the decision.

"Soon or later, we're going to have to address social media and the information that can be dispersed and its effect on criminal trials."

Der said members of the public could conceivably attend a preliminary inquiry like this one and anonymously post comments about the proceedings online. Information about inadmissible evidence and the like could quickly become widespread, possibly prejudicing judges or the jury pool.

While this hasn't happened to him personally, Der said, he could see it happening in several of his higher-profile cases on the horizon.

"If it does occur, it's a most unfortunate thing. … Even the expense alone of having to retry someone because judges or jurors are influenced by things they shouldn't have been could be staggering," Der said.

The influence of social media could also result in more juries being sequestered during trials, also representing a significant cost to taxpayers, he said.

Accredited members of the media will be allowed to attend the inquiry that runs all week, Lutz said.

Paxton was also charged in September with the forcible confinement and aggravated assault of a Calgary girl, and assault with a weapon on a different man in connection with an incident in May 2009.