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Media win courtroom access more than year after trial ends

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   June 6, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   June 6, 2006

Media win courtroom access more than year after trial ends

  • Before closing a courtroom, judges must find that there are valid concerns that can be alleviated by denying the public access to a proceeding.

June 6, 2006  ·   The argument that the public’s interest in a capital murder trial trumped the defendant’s fair trial rights did not convince a South Carolina trial judge last year to open a pretrial hearing, a court proceeding that the state’s highest court ruled last week should not have been shuttered.

The unanimous ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court is the latest in a string of state court decisions strengthening public access to courts in the state, said Rivers Stilwell, the attorney who represented The Greenville News.

Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote for the high court that Greenville County Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr.’s closure of a pretrial evidentiary hearing in the capital murder case against Charles Christopher Williams was not justified.

“Relying on the fact that this case involved the ‘hot button’ issue of domestic violence, an issue which had played prominently in the media’s coverage of the case, and because this case also involved sensitive racial issues, the court closed the suppression hearing,” Toal wrote in the May 30 ruling. “Though these concerns were no doubt genuine, closing the courtroom could not possibly have alleviated either of them.”

Nicholson attempted to close the hearing — held last year in a town outside of Greenville to decrease the chances it would be covered, the opinion said — when someone pointed out the presence of reporters in the courtroom.

According to the high court’s opinion, after the judge announced he would close the hearing, the reporters asked that they be able to contact their lawyers. Stilwell and the lawyer for a local television station, WYFF-TV were given an hour to get to the courthouse, Stilwell said.

After hearing the newspaper and television station’s arguments, the judge closed the hearing. Though Williams has since been convicted and sentenced to death for the September 2003 murder of Maranda Leigh Williams, the paper and TV station still appealed the ruling closing the hearing.

In overturning the lower court, Judge Toal pointed out closing the courtroom had no effect on the news media’s ability to report information about the case since The Greenville News had published at least 38 stories or opinion pieces about the murder. Closing the courtroom could not have prevented prejudice against the defendant at that point, she wrote.

Though the case was a big win for the media, Stilwell said some judges, particularly in capital murder cases, will still be concerned that allowing reporters in courtrooms will create enough publicity to give the defense an argument that it did not receive a fair trial on appeal.

In future cases, he said, “I’m hoping the trial judge will look at [this ruling] and say, ‘What’s this tell me? I can’t close the courtroom. Nobody’s done it right yet.'”

The newspaper and television station also argued they had not been given enough time and notice to be heard in the trial court, an argument they lost on appeal.

(Ex parte Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., d/b/a WYFF TV-4, and The Greenville News, a division of Gannett Pacific Corp., Intervenors-Appellants, In re The State v. Charles Christopher Williams, Media counsel: Rivers Stilwell, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, Greenville, S.C.)HB

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