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Television station wins right to copy audiotape evidence

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  1. Freedom of Information
Television station wins right to copy audiotape evidence 06/01/98 CALIFORNIA--The public has a right to copy an audiotape admitted into…

Television station wins right to copy audiotape evidence

06/01/98

CALIFORNIA–The public has a right to copy an audiotape admitted into evidence and played for the jury in a criminal trial, unless providing access would threaten the integrity of the evidence, a state appellate panel in San Diego unanimously held in mid-May.

The court held that, consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, there is a constitutional and common law right of access to judicial proceedings that applies to evidence presented during a criminal trial.

The appellate court rejected the trial court’s rationale that it was necessary to deny a television station’s request for access to the audiotape in order to protect the defendants’ fair trial rights. According to the appeals court, the defendants’ interest in precluding access to the tape after it had already been presented to the jury was “diminished, if not ameliorated altogether.” Conversely, the court noted that the public has a “particularly clear” interest in viewing evidence that has been presented in open court.

During the criminal trial of several defendants accused of murdering an elderly man for five dollars, the prosecution offered into evidence an audiotape of a conversation that occurred between two of the defendants in the back of a police car after their arrest. The audiotape was introduced into evidence and played for the jury in open court.

Television stations KNSD Channels 7/39 and KGTV Channel 10 attended and videotaped portions of the proceedings, but apparently did not videotape the airing of the audiotape. The stations requested access to the tape so that they could copy it and air it.

The superior court denied the motion, holding that the public had had adequate access to the audiotape. The court noted that the case had generated a “tremendous amount” of pre-trial and ongoing publicity, that the jury had been “bombarded” with the opportunity to violate its promise not to be exposed to media reports about the case, and that he would “do nothing further to fuel that possibility.”

Even though the criminal trial had concluded, the appellate court said that the issue of public access was not moot “because of the importance of the question involved, the possibility of its recurrence and the fact that trial court orders denying access to such evidence would otherwise evade review.” (KNSD Channels 7/39 v. The Superior Court of San Diego County; Media Counsel: Guylyn Cummins, San Diego)