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Courtroom wrongly closed for jury selection in King trial

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         TENNESSEE         Secret Courts         Dec 16, 1999    

Courtroom wrongly closed for jury selection in King trial

  • The state’s highest court found a Memphis courtroom should not have been closed to a newspaper trying to cover the civil conspiracy lawsuit brought by Rev. Martin Luther’s King’s family.

The state Supreme Court in Nashville on Dec. 13 ruled that a Memphis trial court erred by denying a newspaper access to the jury selection in the conspiracy lawsuit brought by Rev. Martin Luther King’s family.

The court held that the trial judge had improperly looked to a court rule prohibiting broadcast media coverage of jury selection to exclude The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal from both the selection and court transcripts of the selection. Its unanimous, unsigned opinion stated that nothing justified the trial court’s decision to keep the public from viewing the jury selection process.

Acting on his own initiative, trial Judge James E. Swearengen had barred the press from attending the jury selection in the case on Nov. 15 and then denied the Commercial Appeal‘s protest. “I feel that the jurors should be protected from public scrutiny and that the public shall not be aware of who they are,” Swearengen ruled. He added that he wanted the jury to remain anonymous so they would freely participate in the trial process.

On Nov. 16, the Commercial Appeal returned to court after the completion of jury selection and requested a transcript of the proceeding. Swearengen denied the request.

The King family had sued a Memphis businessman who had claimed six years earlier that the person he paid to kill King was not James Earl Ray, who had been convicted of the murder. The jury found that evidence of a conspiracy to kill King existed.

(King v. Jowers; Media Counsel: Lucian Pera and Kathy Laughter Laizure, Memphis)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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