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Virginia Supreme Court allows access to trial audio tapes

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         VIRGINIA         Secret Courts         Jan 31, 2001    

Virginia Supreme Court allows access to trial audio tapes

  • A reporter wins the right to listen to trial procedings in a case that did not have a written transcript.

Audio recordings of criminal trials are public court records and must be available for public scrutiny, according to a ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court on Jan. 12.

The state’s high court rejected the arguments of a circuit court clerk who forbade a reporter from listening to an audio tape of a trial. The ruling affirmed the lower court’s decision that the public and the press are entitled to listen to recordings of criminal trials.

On June 2, 1999, Henrico County Circuit Court clerk Yvonne Smith denied Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Tom Campbell access to a criminal trial recording. Campbell and the newspaper petitioned the court for an order to compel Smith to allow access to the tapes.

In affirming the lower court decision, the court relied on the public records statute to determine that trail recordings are court records similar to written transcripts. In Henrico County, a written transcript is prepared only in the event that a defendant appeals. Otherwise, an audio tape provides the only verbatim account of a trial. The court determined that since courts are required to record every criminal trial, whether manually or with a machine, the public must have access to the records.

Smith reasoned that she did not have to grant access to the tapes because she believed the petitioners did not have a clear right to inspect them. She also contended that as a clerk of the court, she had discretion to prohibit Campbell’s review of the tapes if it would interfere with the office’s business.

The court disagreed and stated that while a clerk can regulate the manner in which a person can listen to a tape, she cannot deny access.

Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. wrote for the court that clerks must find a “reasonable balance” in allowing the public to access court records and maintaining the efficiency of the office.

(Smith v. Richmond Newspapers, Inc.; Media counsel: Alexander Wellford) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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