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Judge unseals court records in Trayvon Martin shooting

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  1. Court Access
A Florida judge unsealed court records relating to the case of George Zimmerman - who is charged with the second-degree…

A Florida judge unsealed court records relating to the case of George Zimmerman – who is charged with the second-degree murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – following legal requests by several news organizations.

Judge Kenneth Lester, Jr., who took over the case after Judge Jessica Recksiedler recused herself due to a conflict of interest, reversed the previous judge’s order to seal the records, and posted about two dozen documents to the court’s website Monday. The records were initially sealed at the request of Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara.

Sandy Bohrer – a Miami-based media lawyer who filed a motion to intervene on behalf of several news organizations including McClatchy, CNN, the Associated Press and E.W. Scripps – said the judge’s order simply complies with Florida law. A separate motion to intervene was filed on behalf of The Orlando Sentinel and several other Florida media organizations.

“Normally, these things are open in Florida so the public can see what’s going on,” Bohrer said. “We’re just trying to keep things open.”

Documents released include the probable cause affidavit, the motion to disqualify Judge Recksiedler, the pre-trial intake sheet and a redacted exhibit list.

In Florida, courts and court records are presumed open unless closure is established by satisfying a three-part test, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Courts Compendium: (1) closure is needed to prevent a threat to justice; (2) no alternatives are available to protect the right to a fair trial; (3) closure would protect the defendant’s rights without being too broad.

The next step in Zimmerman’s legal battle may come Friday if Special Prosecutor Angela Corey decides to release discovery materials, including crime scene photos and results of Martin’s autopsy, to Zimmerman’s defense team. The public generally has access to pretrial discovery materials that the prosecution provides to the defense in criminal cases in Florida. However, in some cases, courts have delayed the release of materials so the defense has the opportunity to object to the release of some of the records, according to the Open Courts Compendium.

Bohrer said it was unclear whether the prosecution or the defense would ask to seal the discovery materials. Zimmerman has stated that once his side of the story comes out, he will be vindicated, according to Bohrer.

“The whole thing is, this lawsuit, for whatever reason has drawn enormous public attention, so all the more reason to keep it open,” Bohrer said.

Calls placed to O'Mara and Corey were not returned.

Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 26 shooting of Martin as the unarmed teen walked home. Zimmerman was released earlier this week after posting $150,000 bond, and is not expected to appear in public until his trial.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Florida – Open Courts Compendium: A. In general

· News: Strong interest in Ohio public corruption case warrants unsealing of many trial exhibits