A Maryland appellate court on Friday upheld a trial court’s order allowing a Baltimore television station to copy two recordings of explicit confessions in a high-profile murder trial.
A Baltimore jury convicted John Gaumer of raping and murdering Josie Brown, whom he met on Myspace, in 2007. During Gaumer’s trial, prosecutors introduced two taped confessions, one videotaped and one audiotaped. On March 5, 2008, the trial court granted WBAL-TV’s request to copy portions of the tapes.
On appeal, prosecutors and the Brown family claimed that the trial court abused its discretion in granting WBAL’s request for access because the protection of victims’ rights outweighed the presumption of public access to court records. But the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland – the state’s intermediate appellate court – recognized a “common law presumption of the openness of court records that, as a general rule, can only be overcome by a ‘special and compelling reason.’” It added that, because transcripts of the confessions were already public, airing the redacted tapes “could hardly have much more of a negative impact on the Browns than what they had already endured.”
Gaumer objected to the release as well, arguing that prior courts have sealed court documents out of concern for fair trial rights. But the appellate court noted that in those cases, unlike Gaumer’s, “either the jury was still sitting in the criminal trial or another defendant’s trial was pending at the time the media sought the evidence.” By contrast, “[a] concern for Gaumer’s fair trial rights in a speculative future trial” could not overcome the presumption of access to court records.
The appellate court also rejected the claim that the trial court should not have allowed copying of the tapes because access to the transcripts was sufficient. “[A] transcript ordinarily reflects only the words spoken, and not how they were said or the physical actions and reactions of the participants present,” it ruled.
WBAL was represented by Nathan Siegel of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, in Washington, D.C.