An appeals court in Florida has ruled that a lower court may not put a 30-day delay on releasing documents to the media in a high-profile murder trial without first allowing media representatives to argue for openness.
A trial judge in Jacksonville imposed a 30-day delay on the release of any records in the murder trial of Michael Dunn after reporters obtained copies of letters Dunn had written from prison and published racially sensitive comments from them, according to The Florida Times-Union. The judge imposed the delay out of concern that Dunn would not receive a fair trial otherwise.
Florida public records law is among the most expansive in the country and unequivocally states, "it is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person."
Recognizing that police, the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee said the lower court judge "acted with proper intent to preserve" Dunn's right to a fair trial, but that the judge should have allowed media groups to present evidence that Dunn's rights were not in danger before imposing the general delay on all records in the case.
Lawyers representing the media companies argued before the First District yesterday. In a comment that foreshadowed the court's opinion today, Judge Scott Makar expressed concern during the argument that the trial judge had not given the media a chance to argue for openness before effectively sealing the court records from public view.
"I do find it disturbing," he said, according to First Coast News. "I don't know how to characterize it. It's just disturbing there was this pre-hearing without the interested subjects being present."