Trayvon Martin case

Media seek access to more evidence in Zimmerman case

 

Media attorneys will challenge by the prosecution and defense in the George Zimmerman trial to seal evidence.

frobles@MiamiHerald.com

Attorneys will square off in a Seminole County courtroom Friday over whether more evidence in the George Zimmerman murder trial should be kept out of the public eye.

At issue is whether personal information about Zimmerman and the teenager he killed, such as phone records, autopsy photos and statements to police, would be so damaging if made public that they’d ruin a chance at a fair trial.

Assistant State Attorney Bernardo de la Rionda and defense attorney Mark O’Mara have joined forces and filed motions to the court to seal things such as Zimmerman’s statements to police, his text messages and the names and addresses of 22 witnesses who saw or heard the fighting between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

They also seek to deny access to audio tapes of interviews with a woman who made an unrelated allegation against Zimmerman.

“Should the entirety of a person’s private life be disclosed to the public because he or she has been accused, rightfully or wrongfully, of a crime?” O’Mara wrote on his website. “We understand that there is strong public interest in the Zimmerman case, and our motion is not meant to deprive the public of their right to know relevant information.”

Zimmerman is a former college student and neighborhood watch volunteer who got into a fistfight with unarmed Miami Gardens high school junior Trayvon. Zimmerman claims he shot Trayvon in self defense, but a special prosecutor brought in to investigate the case charged him with second-degree murder.

The case received extraordinary coverage both in traditional and social media. Much of the evidence released so far is widely available on the Internet and has been picked apart by bloggers, reporters and amateur crime sleuths throughout the nation.

The attorneys say that the intense media interest is cause for Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester to hold back certain evidence, which under normal circumstances would be public record as soon as it is made available to the defense. Lawyers representing media companies seeking access to the records say the prosecution and defense have not met the legal burden to withhold the records.

“Florida has a strong commitment to open records, and it’s supposed to be difficult to withhold them from the public,” said Scott Ponce, an attorney for the Miami Herald and 15 other media companies.

The broad secrecy the prosecution seeks is “not supported by statute, constitution or case law, and it certainly cannot be justified in this prosecution, which involves matters of the highest public concern,” Ponce wrote in a court filing.

He added that closure is only warranted when it’s established that it’s necessary to “prevent serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice.”

His court filing said the state can withhold witness names only if their safety is in jeopardy or if it keeps investigators from locating a codefendant.

The media companies agreed not to publish Trayvon’s autopsy photos, but asked that a designated media representative be allowed to review them.

The media motion argues that while confessions are not generally considered public record, Zimmerman’s statements to police can’t be considered confessions unless he admitted to every material element of the crime he’s charged with.

Ken Bunting, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said the quest to keep information from the media is ironic, given that it was media interest in the case that caused law enforcement to take a second look at the investigation.

“I think it’s overreaching,” Bunting said. “I know it’s fashionable to demonize the media, especially in high-profile cases like this, but nothing does more to ensure a fair trial and the fair administration of justice than sunshine itself. Excessive secrecy is never the right answer.”

He noted, however, that he would not be surprised to see witness names sealed, on the argument that they need to be protected from harassment.

An attorney for the Orlando Sentinel and WFTV in Orlando will also argue against the defense and state motions. A hearing will take place at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Lester’s courtroom.

Read more Zimmerman Case stories from the Miami Herald

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