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Crime scene, autopsy photos must be shown to media

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Dec. 1, 2005

Crime scene, autopsy photos must be shown to media

  • An appellate court ruled that the privacy interests of a murder victim’s family do not outweigh the public’s right to an open criminal trial, a decision that was allowed to stand by the state supreme court and a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Dec. 1, 2005  ·   The Supreme Court of Florida Wednesday refused to review a state appeals court’s decision granting media access to videotape and photographs of a a murder scene and subsequent autopsy, letting stand the appeals court’s ruling that the trial court had improperly withheld the materials from the press. An emergency appeal to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to stay the decision was also denied the same day.

A three-judge appellate panel for the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida ruled that the Circuit Court in Sarasota abused its discretion Nov. 16 when it said four media organizations could not inspect photographs and a video that were presented into evidence in the case.

“Secret evidence is the hallmark of an oppressive regime; it is not a policy generally acceptable in a free society with courts that must be open to the people to assure the legitimacy of those courts and the fairness of the proceedings that occur therein,” Judge Chris W. Altenbernd wrote. Although the photos were “extraordinarily distressing,” he wrote that in this case “these photographs are evidence in a trial where the state, on behalf of the people, is using its power to pursue the most extreme penalties.” Accordingly, Judge Altenbernd asked the trial court to permit each of the four media petitioners to have one journalist view the disputed exhibits for the media pool.

When the state requested that the Florida Supreme Court grant a stay while it considered whether to review the appellate court’s decision, lawyers for the four media companies asked the high court to reject the request, arguing that sealing the photos violated the news media’s rights under Florida law and the First Amendment. The media lawyers also argued that the public’s ability to monitor the trial through the news media had been injured by the unnecessary delay — the media lawyers were still fighting for access three weeks after the disputed photos were first shown to the jury and 10 days after the criminal defendant was found guilty.

The trial court judge had sealed the photographs at the request of the murder victim’s father to keep photos of his daughter confidential. The victim, Carlie Brucia, was 11 years old at the time of her death. The photos show a child with a nude lower body, and reveal the various trauma sustained by her, as well as decomposition. The trial court refused to release the photos to the public, finding that “the mere ‘viewing’ of the photographs will cause tremendous harm” to Carlie’s family, which was already distressed by the thought of the media accessing the photos. The trial court also found that the already intense coverage of the trial portended that the photos would be greatly publicized if released.

In overturning the sealing, the appellate court ruled that, while it respects “the privacy interests of the victim’s family,” “less restrictive measures exist to protect those interests while also protecting the competing interests engendered by a public trial.”

The four petitioners, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV and The Herald, had petitioned the appeals court for access to the photos on the fourth day of trial, when the trial court made an oral ruling that the press and public would not be permitted to review the crime scene photographs. In their emergency appeal, the lawyers for the media companies sought only the right to inspect the photos, but not to copy, publish, or broadcast them, or place them on the Internet.

The criminal case involved the State of Florida’s prosecution of Joseph P. Smith for the first-degree murder, capital sexual battery, and kidnapping of Brucia. As part of the state’s case, it offered a number of crime scene and autopsy photographs and a video into evidence to prove material matters in dispute. Although the jury was allowed to view all of the photos, because of the trial court’s ruling, neither the press nor public were permitted to view the photographs that showed nude images of the girl.

“The broadest issue in this case is whether the State can rely upon secret evidence to obtain a conviction for a capital offense,” Judge Altenbernd wrote for the Court of Appeals. “Although Mr. Smith’s trial has been broadcast on television and conducted in an open, public courtroom, these specific items of evidence have been concealed from all members of the public and the press,” which is inconsistent with the purpose of public court proceedings.

(Sarasota Herald-Tribune v. Florida; Media counsel: Gregg Thomas, Holland & Knight, Tampa, Fla.)SB

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