Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Monday that a documentary filmmaker cannot access an audio recording of a controversial rape trial because it is not an official judicial record of the trial.
State Supreme Judicial Court justices unanimously agreed that filmmaker Steve Audette is not entitled to the unofficial recording under the public’s First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings. Audette’s access interest was satisfied because he had the official typed transcript, they ruled.
The justices clarified that their decision does not deny citizens the right to request such unofficial recordings. Instead, the requestor carries the burden of showing the court why the interests of justice would be served by making the recording public, the decision stated.
Normally, the burden of showing good cause to close the records falls on the party trying to restrict access to presumptively public records or proceedings.
“What we saw was the court drawing a distinction between what they consider to be the public, open part of their jobs and the internal court records that are necessary to function properly,” said Jonathan Albano, Audette’s attorney.
Audette filed a motion in 2007 to gain access to the court reporter’s recording of Keith Winfield’s trial to use in his documentary about former police officer who was charged with assaulting and raping his 23-month-old niece. The court reporter had recorded the proceedings as a backup that she could use to transcribe the trial.
The lower court judge ruled that the risk of emotional distress to the victim and her family outweighed Audette’s interest in using the audio for his film.
“The public, in trying to assess the fairness and outcome of a trial, has no better means than hearing what the witnesses actually said and how they said it,” Albano said. “That interest fell by the wayside.”
Albano pointed out that Massachusetts has a presumptive right for broadcasters to tape criminal trials, and if someone had broadcast the trial, Audette would have had access to that recording.
“Why treat the tape made by a court employee as breaking some kind of new ground?” Albano said.
“Unfortunately, rather than viewing the request as the public wanting the most authentic record of a public event prepared by a court officer, they viewed it as a request for an internal recording that would have to be carefully reviewed to determine if anything was said that should not have been on the tape,” he said.
The District Attorney's office said it was unable to comment.