A Florida judge denied prosecutors’ attempts to seal court records and close future hearings in the prosecution of George Zimmerman, ruling in a hearing today that “this is an open court, this is a public case.”
More than a dozen news media organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Associated Press, filed a motion to intervene to oppose the government's sealing request, arguing that blanket closure would be unlawful and should be permitted only on a case-by-case basis, if at all.
Circuit Judge Debra Nelson "expressly said that she believes in open courtrooms,” lawyer Scott Ponce, who represented the media groups, said in an interview following the afternoon hearing. “She recognized the applicable standard for what it takes to close a courtroom and thinks it should be open.”
Nelson found that the proposed blanket sealing order did not satisfy Florida's three-part test that requires a party seeking closure to prove that closure is necessary for a fair trial, that no alternatives are available and that closure would be effective without becoming overbroad.
Prosecutors filed the motion to close hearings and seal documents last month after defense attorneys requested Trayvon Martin’s public school records, including his disciplinary records, grades and attendance records, which normally are not available to the public.
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin. Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, claims he shot the teenager in self-defense, and the racially charged case has garnered national attention.
Lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda filed the motion so that Martin’s school records, along with any future evidence produced by subpoenas, could not be revealed to the public.
Nelson ruled today that the defense can subpoena Martin’s school records, but the records are exempt from public disclosure. The judge also allowed the prosecution to see Zimmerman’s medical records, which also are exempt from public view.
On Thursday, the prosecution asked Nelson to issue a gag order, which would prevent all attorneys and law enforcement officials from speaking about the case. Nelson will rule on the request at the next hearing, which is scheduled for Oct. 26.
“It’s very difficult to get a gag order, and it’s becoming harder to find instances where courts will gag attorneys,” Ponce said. “I anticipate that the media will oppose the request.”
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Florida – Open Courts Compendium: A. In general