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911 tapes about alleged lynching must be released, high court rules

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    News Media Update         SOUTH CAROLINA         Freedom of Information         April 7, 2005    

911 tapes about alleged lynching must be released, high court rules

  • A newspaper must have access to 911 tapes even if their release could generate so much pretrial publicity that a trial would have to change venue, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled.

April 7, 2005 — Concern that pretrial publicity could trigger the need for a change of venue in a trial is not sufficient reason for the city of North Charleston to withhold 911 tapes describing an alleged attempted lynching that ended when responding police officers mistakenly shot and killed the victim, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Monday.

A video store owner called 911 in October 2000 to report that four white men were attacking a black man outside the store. When police arrived, the victim, Edward Snowden, was brandishing a gun inside the store, where police shot and killed him, according to court records.

The (Charleston) Post and Courier asked the city for the 911 tapes giving the store owner’s description of events and police conversations to the dispatcher. Because the four white men were going to be tried for the attempted lynching, prosecutor Ralph Hoisington objected to the release, saying it would generate pretrial publicity harming the city’s case and likely requiring a change of venue. Officials agreed and refused to release the tapes, arguing that as part of a “prospective law enforcement action,” they were exempt from the state’s public records law.

The Post sued and both the trial court and the state intermediate appellate court ruled against it. Justice Costa Pleicones, writing for a unanimous South Carolina Supreme Court, reversed, ordering release of the tapes.

Pleicones said change of venue sparked by substantial pretrial publicity is not a “harm,” covered by the law’s exemption for “prospective law enforcement action.” The exemption is instead meant to “prevent harms such as those caused by release of a crime suspect’s name before arrest, the location of an upcoming sting operation, and other sensitive law-enforcement information,” he wrote.

In a footnote, the court addressed an argument by Hoisington that by releasing the tapes, he would violate professional rules prohibiting him from creating pretrial publicity. “Disclosure under [the state Freedom of Information Act] is the obligation of the government,” which is distinguishable from a government attorney’s personal obligations, the court wrote.

(Evening Post Publishing Co. v. City of North Charleston; Media Counsel: John J. Kerr, Buist, Moore, Smythe & McGee; Charleston, S.C.)RL

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