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Judge was wrong to deny media access in King trial

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From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

The state Supreme Court held in December that a Memphis courtroom should not have been closed to a newspaper trying to cover the civil lawsuit brought by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family against a man accused of conspiring to kill King. The Memphis trial court had denied the newspaper access to the jury selection process.

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. The Supreme Court’s unanimous, unsigned opinion stated that nothing justified the trial court’s decision to keep the newspaper from viewing the jury selection process.

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Dr. Martin Luther King’s wife and four children brought a wrongful death lawsuit against retired Memphis businessman Lloyd Jowers, one of a number of alleged conspirators in King’s assassination. Jowers claimed in 1993 that he paid someone other than James Earl Ray to kill King in 1968.

The trial began in Memphis on November 15 and Judge James Swearengen, acting without requests from any parties to the lawsuit, closed jury selection proceedings.

The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal intervened in the proceedings on that same day and objected to the closure. Swearengen refused to allow the newspaper access to jury selection. He explained, “This case is such that I feel that the jurors should be protected from public scrutiny and that the public shall not be aware of who they are. I don’t want — and I’m going to assure them when we voir dire them that they will remain anonymous. And for that reason they will feel free to participate in the trial process. That’s my ruling.”

The judge said that he decided to close the proceedings to all members of the public because he wanted to prevent a reporter from pretending to be “John Q. Public” and witnessing the proceedings. Swearengen stated that his decision was motivated by concerns about juror safety and the scrutiny that they could receive in the highly publicized case.

He stated that he was relying upon procedural rules to close the jury selection proceedings, citing state court rules providing that “media coverage of jury selection is prohibited” and that a judge has the discretion to limit media coverage to control the proceedings, maintain decorum, prevent distractions, and ensure the fair administration of justice.

On Nov. 16, the newspaper requested that the trial court release the transcript of the proceedings. Swearengen denied the newspaper’s request. But when testimony began in the case later that day, reporters and cameras were allowed into the courtroom. At the conclusion of the trial, the jurors found that evidence of a conspiracy existed. After issuing their verdict, several jurors in the case spoke to reporters and gave reporters their names.

The newspaper maintained that Swearengen’s closing of the jury selection process violated the First Amendment and sought permission to file an appeal, which was denied by a state intermediate appellate court in Memphis, but granted by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Nashville.

The state Supreme Court held Dec. 13 that Swearengen had overlooked the fact that the procedural rule he cited in barring a newspaper reporter from covering the jury selection pertains to broadcast media coverage of court proceedings, and not newspaper coverage.

“‘Coverage’ is specifically defined in the rule to mean ‘any recording or broadcasting of a court proceeding by the media using television, radio, photographic, or recording equipment,'” the court noted.

The court added that it found no other justification for the closing of jury selection proceedings in the case and overturned the closure order. (King v. Jowers)