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Judge issues prior restraint against broadcast company

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    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Prior Restraints    

Judge issues prior restraint against broadcast company

  • A circuit court judge ordered broadcasters not to report on the contents of a grand jury transcript that news groups say were legally obtained.

Aug. 3, 2004 — A circuit court judge in Jacksonville, Fla., ordered a broadcast company last week not to further report on a grand jury transcript obtained from an assistant state attorney.

The First Coast News, a Gannett duopoly of an ABC and an NBC affiliate, reported on the contents of the 164-page grand jury transcript July 28. The transcript contains statements made by Justin Barber, who was indicted July 9 for the 2002 killing of his wife.

Two days after the story aired, Judge Robert Mathis of Circuit Court in Jacksonville issued his order, a violation of which could carry misdemeanor charges. First Coast filed a motion to set aside the order yesterday, calling it an unconstitutional prior restraint and a violation of state public records laws.

“The documents were furnished by the state attorney,” said First Coast News attorney George Gabel. “They’re in our possession and now the judge is saying we can’t use it.”

Because Mathis is out of the country until Aug. 9, First Coast is trying to reach the circuit’s chief judge to schedule a hearing on the matter, Gabel said.

First Coast argues that because Florida’s public record laws make documents furnished to defendants who testify in a criminal proceeding part of the public record, Assistant State Attorney Maureen Sullivan Christine acted within the parameters of the law. Copies of Barber’s grand jury testimony had already been given to Barber.

Mathis’ order, which he brought on his own motion, relies on a Florida law requiring grand jury proceedings to remain secret. He said release of the transcript is a violation of that law.

Mathis also called for an investigation into the release of the transcript.

“I think I’m right,” Christine said, referring to the records as public information. “I think this will work out for me in the end.”

Barber, 32, was charged on July 9 with killing his 27-year-old wife, April, who was found dead in a state park in August 2002 with one gunshot wound. Barber had allegedly fled the scene and drove more than 10 miles before flagging down help. He had four gunshot wounds himself, and claimed that the two had been robbed by a man on the beach.

The July 28 First Coast report discussed Barber’s admission to the grand jury that he had at least five affairs in the year prior to his wife’s death, as well as his account of the events the night his wife was killed. Barber maintained his innocence throughout his testimony, according to the article on the company’s Web site.

(State v. Barber; Media Counsel: George Gabel, Holland & Knight, Jacksonville) CZ

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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