NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · GEORGIA · Secret Courts · July 6, 2007
Judge opens pretrial hearing in murder case to public
July 6, 2007 · Reversing his previous stance, a Georgia judge has decided to allow public access to a pretrial hearing for a man accused of murdering Mexican immigrants.
Tift County Superior Court Judge Gary McCorvey in Tifton had ordered the hearing closed on June 1 but changed his ruling on Monday, agreeing with several media outlets who petitioned to retain access to the proceedings.
Underwood is one of four people accused of murdering six Mexican immigrants in a series of at least four attacks in September 2005. The victims were beaten and shot, and at least one was raped. Underwood faces the death penalty if he is convicted.
After McCorvey issued an oral order closing Underwood’s pretrial hearing to the public, The Associated Press and two Georgia newspapers — The Tifton Gazette and The Moultrie Observer — asked him to reconsider.
In making his decision, McCorvey emphasized the extreme importance of ensuring reliability in the criminal process when a defendant’s life is on the line, noting that because of the “exceptional and irrevocable nature” of the death penalty, “extraordinary measures” are required to ensure that the judicial process is reliable.
According to Associated Press reports, McCorvey called upon the media to refrain from publishing “speculation” with “no basis in fact.” He also advised them against publishing reports that are “disparaging of legal procedural safeguards in general” or of Underwood and his attorneys “in particular.”
McCorvey also ruled that 41 defense motions filed in the case be made available to the public and that any hearings on those motions be open as well. He further changed his stance on television and still photography cameras, deciding to allow them in the courtroom throughout the trial.
In petitioning to open the proceedings, David E. Hudson, an attorney representing the media, had argued that criminal trials in Georgia are only closed if there is “clear and convincing proof” that doing so is the only way to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Hudson went on to argue that the fact that the media is reporting on a trial is not enough to justify closing public access to it, because routine media coverage is not considered prejudicial to defendants.
(Georgia v. Underwood, Media Counsel: David E. Hudson, Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley, Augusta, Ga.) — JB