Media get hearing on access to evangelist-hit man tape
FLORIDA–The Court of Appeals in Daytona Beach ruled that a trial court judge must conduct a hearing to determine whether the news media can have access to audio and video tapes that allegedly show radio evangelist George Crossley trying to hire a hit man.
In an early April decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that Seminole County judge Tom Freeman should have allowed the attorneys representing television station WESH, The Orlando Sentinel and reporter Dave McDaniel to be heard in court before blocking access to the tapes.
Crossley has been charged with solicitation to commit murder and arson. He allegedly attempted to hire an undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to kill a man. The ATF agent taped a number of conversations with Crossley during which Crossley claimed that the man, George Waldo, was harassing him because he had an affair with Waldo’s ex-wife. Investigators say that during these conversations, Crossley solicited the ATF agent to shoot Waldo and bomb his house.
After Crossley was charged, he obtained copies of the tapes through discovery. The media then requested copies of the tapes under the Public Records Law, which classifies discovery materials filed with the court as public records subject to disclosure unless the court determines that disclosure would create prejudicial pretrial publicity.
Crossley asked the Seminole County Court for a protective order exempting the tapes from disclosure. He claimed that publicity created by disclosure would prevent him from receiving a fair trial.
To make that determination, the court must conduct a hearing and consider whether closure is necessary to prevent a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice, whether there are alternatives available which would protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial and whether closure effectively protects the defendant’s rights without being broader than necessary to accomplish this purpose.
Judge Tom Freeman conducted a hearing, but refused to hear arguments from media attorneys. He then granted Crossley’s motion for a protective order without conducting the balancing test.
In striking down the protective order, the court of appeals said it was “troubled” by the trial court’s refusal to hear from the media attorneys even though they were present and had filed a motion to intervene. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to hold a new hearing and allow the media to present arguments in favor of disclosing the tapes. (WESH Television v. Freeman; Media Counsel: David Evans, Orlando)