Judge denies news show copy of crime scene videotape
PENNSYLVANIA–A county court judge ruled in mid-October that the videotape of a bloody crime scene, along with the audio tape recorded confessions of two skinheads accused of murdering their family, be withheld from a Philadelphia television station because it would jeopardize the brothers’ rights to a fair trial.
In a 31-page opinion, Judge Lawrence J. Brenner denied WPVI-TV’s petition to copy the videotape of the crime scene and statements of Bryan and David Freeman, as well as an audio recording of a confession from their cousin Nelson Birdwell III, because it would “serve no public purpose” and create a possible “circus-like atmosphere.”
The Freeman brothers are charged with the February slayings of their parents, Dennis and Brenda Freeman, and younger brother, Erik. Birdwell was charged with homicide and conspiracy.
WPVI argued that the tapes became public records when they were shown during a preliminary hearing in April. However, Judge Brenner wrote, “The defendants’ right to a fair trial outweighs the media’s right to access the videotaped evidence.”
Brenner said a public airing of the videotapes would invade the victims’ rights to privacy. The videotape of the crime scene shows the bodies of the murder victims in their Lehigh County home and the blood-covered weapons allegedly used in the killings.
“The press should not be muzzled in this case, given the fact that the trial has already been so heavily publicized, and the videotaped confessions of the defendants were marked into evidence,” the station argued.
Judge Brenner said the Freeman tapes differed from evidence shown during a trial because the tapes were not part of the official court record, but instead were kept by the district attorney after the hearing and never filed.
The airing of the tapes would only serve the purpose of “commercial exploitation,” Brenner continued, because the media were able to report on the content of the tapes after the hearing. He also suggested a broadcast of the tapings “might act as a catalyst and titillate a sick and demented mind, thereby triggering a copy-cat murder.”
The station’s attorney said that WPVI-TV has not decided whether it will appeal the judge’s decision.
The Freeman murder trial is slated to begin early next year. (WPVI-TV v. Brenner; Media Counsel: Malcolm Gross, Allentown)