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N.C. media challenge court restrictions on murder trial

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A coalition of media groups challenged restrictions on media coverage in an upcoming murder trial in North Carolina Superior Court.…

A coalition of media groups challenged restrictions on media coverage in an upcoming murder trial in North Carolina Superior Court. The restrictions limit local media's coverage of police and FBI witnesses, as well as media access to areas inside and outside of the court. They are in response to motions from the prosecution and the court's order on its own motion.

The trial for North Carolina v. Cooper is expected to include the witness testimonials of four law enforcement officers: an FBI special agent, a Durham, N.C., police task force agent, an FBI task force agent and a Cary, N.C., police detective. According to motions filed by the assistant district attorney for the 10th Prosecutorial District, Benjamin O. Zellinger, these witnesses "are/have been involved in undercover assignments." Zellinger requested that the court "prohibit the media from reporting or showing the identities or faces" of these law enforcement officers.

Thus far, the court has ordered the protection of the FBI special agent and the Durham Police task force agent's identities. Zellinger's motion was filed Feb. 3 and the court ordered on the first two officers Feb. 4. The court has not yet ruled on the motion to protect the other two law enforcement officers, filed on Feb. 23.

The News & Observer Publishing Company; Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc.; WTVD Television LLC; the Associated Press and Media General Operations Inc. have together filed a motion for leave to intervene, to vacate the prior restraint order and in opposition to the motions to protect witness identity.

In a memorandum in support of their motion to intervene, the media organizations argued against the court prohibiting the publication of the witnesses' identities. The memorandum stated: "[N]either the officers themselves nor the State has taken measures to protect the identities of undercover officers who are expected to testify." Also noted is the fact that "[Zellinger's] motions — which are public records — identify the officers whose identities the District Attorney seeks to obscure."

C. Amanda Martin, counsel to the five media organizations, said in response to an email inquiry that "it would be inappropriate for the court to prohibit the disclosure of information that already is in the public." Essentially, the motions to protect the witnesses' identities are "pointless," Martin said. "Courts generally observe the adage that you cannot put toothpaste back in the tube. It is wrong to even try to do so when it is the State’s lawyers and the officers themselves who squeezed the tube originally," she said.

The court has also restricted when and where members of the media can report on the case. The media organizations' memorandum to the court specifically finds fault with two aspects of the court's order: The order that "no interviews, recording, or coverage will be allowed in the immediate vicinity of" two entrances to the courthouse, "or on the sidewalks immediately adjacent to those areas," and the order that "media will be allowed to conduct interviews, recording or coverage in the vicinity of" those entrances "thirty minutes after the trial has adjourned for the day."

The media have asked the court to modify or remove these two orders from the overall order on media coverage. "Though reasonable time, place and manner restrictions are acceptable, this order works as a blanket prohibition on certain newsgathering activities, and there has been no indication that such restrictive measures are needed to address any particular issue," Martin explained.