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Public access to courts vital for transparency

Henry County Magistrate Court Chief Judge Robert Godwin presides over a first pre-issuance hearing at the Henry County Jail. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

Henry County Magistrate Court Chief Judge Robert Godwin presides over a first pre-issuance hearing at the Henry County Jail. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

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Defense attorneys James Watkins and Jesse Bacon with a client during a preliminary hearing in Henry County Magistrate Court. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

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Preliminary hearings, like this one in Henry County, are open to the public and accessible to the press. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

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At left, Rubin Marin makes his first appearance in Henry County Magistrate Court after his arrest in the hit and run crash that killed Henry County police Officer Elgin Daniel last year. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)

Decades before gavel to gavel coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial polarized the country, an Ohio osteopath stood under a media spotlight so intense the U.S. Supreme Court labeled it a carnival.

The press was allowed unprecedented access to jurors in the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, accused in the 1954 beating death of his pregnant wife, Marilyn. Reporters were allowed access to evidence and to the Sheppard home, and to tape Sheppard being interviewed by police.

The bias against Sheppard was palpable. One of the Ohio newspapers once ran a front page headline that read, “Why isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?”

The coroner’s inquest into Marilyn Sheppard’s death was televised. The coroner, who was not an attorney, questioned Sheppard for five hours without his lawyer present.

The trial judge didn’t sequester jurors or admonish them to stay away from media reports on the case. The judge even famously told one reporter on the first day of the nine-week trial, “He’s guilty as hell. There’s no question about it.” Not many were surprised when Sheppard was convicted.

The media exposure was so egregious and influential, the U.S. Supreme Court found in 1964 that Sheppard was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial and cited five specific violations why he should get a second one.

The Sheppard case, which has been studied by legal and journalism scholars for more than 50 years, presents a classic example of how the media’s first amendment right to freedom of the press often clashes with a defendant’s sixth amendment right to a fair trial.

During the time of the Sheppard coverage, media was limited to radio, television and newspapers. However, methods of disseminating information have increased to include the Internet with its myriad websites, YouTube and blogs.

According to a 2008 New York Times article, the number of web-based news organizations is rising as traditional newspapers are shrinking or failing altogether. The article stated that publishing online costs half what it takes to print traditional papers but online advertising is not enough to sustain a newsroom.

Under Georgia law, all courtroom proceedings are deemed open with limited exceptions, and in general, members of the public share the same access to courts that members of the media do. One difference is who can bring in a video or digital camera in order to preserve the hearings for broadcast to a wider audience. Under the courts’ Uniform Rules, cameras in the courtroom are allowed to be used only by members of the media.

Henry County Chief Magistrate Judge Robert Godwin said his courtrooms are accessible to the public and the media.

“An effort is made to make this court accessible to anyone wanting to attend so long as they are not disruptive or interfering with the normal operation of the court,” he said. “I am not aware of any complaints in this regard.”

Godwin said there have been a few cases where cameras were denied access based solely on being disruptive or interfering with the process.

“On occasion we have had media people show up after court started and want to set up equipment,” he said. “This is disruptive and not permitted. The only time I know access was denied to the media was such a case and even then, the people were welcome, just not the equipment,” he said.

Godwin and Henry County sheriff’s deputies stationed in his courtrooms also enforce decorum.

“We had cameramen in shorts who were not allowed in to the court,” he said. “Their solution was to put on rain pants which was fine.”

Nearly everyone with a cellphone also has a camera, which could present issues with surreptitious recording. However, Godwin has addressed that, too.

“Cellphone usage is not permitted in the courtroom generally for any purpose,” he said. “It can interfere with the recording equipment the court uses as well as being generally disruptive.”

Members of the public must pass through a metal detector to get into court and are turned away if they have cellphones or other prohibited items. Most return the items to their cars and go back in without a problem.

Even though Georgia law allows the media to bring in cameras to state and local courtrooms — they are prohibited inside federal courts — a presiding judge can deny the request if he or she finds the media coverage could impact the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Godwin addresses camera requests as they arise.

“If someone wants to photograph something in court, it would be addressed on a case by case basis,” he said.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court that originated from Georgia, confirms the public’s right to courtroom access. In Presley v. Georgia (2010), a defendant in a drug trafficking case objected to his uncle being removed from the courtroom during jury selection and the high court agreed.

In general, courtrooms cannot be locked during proceedings. Some exceptions can include testimony from victims protected by the Rape Shield Law and child sex victims.

Access to Juvenile Courts is even more restricted but Georgia legislators started relaxing the laws about 20 years ago. At that time, lawmakers said it was OK to open the courts in juvenile cases involving designated felonies.

Designated felonies include a list of about 30 felonies for which the youthful offender is subject to a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years in a Youth Development Campus, or what is in reality a youth prison.

A new law that goes into effect in January divides those designated felonies into Class A and Class B offenses. Class A felonies are serious and the offender is still subject to a maximum of five years, but Class B crimes are lowered to a maximum of 18 months in detention.

Juvenile Court hearings involving offenders who have previously been adjudicated on a felony are also open to the public.

About three years ago, the legislature opened all child deprivation hearings to the public.

Open courtrooms help assure the public and the media that judges are making decisions based on law and not emotions or for personal gain. Several years ago in Luzerne County, Pa., two juvenile court judges took advantage of the confidential nature of the juvenile system to create a kickback scheme that netted them millions of dollars.

Called “Kids for Cash,” the scheme involved the judges finding juveniles guilty of offenses without benefit of counsel and placing them in one of two private, for-profit juvenile facilities.

As a result of the investigation, juvenile offenders who appeared before the two judges between 2003 and 2008 had their adjudications of guilt vacated and records expunged.

The two judges were convicted. One got 28 years in federal prison; the other, 17-and-a-half years.

While documents filed in magistrate, state and superior courts are accessible to the public, judges have the authority to seal certain documents. Those exclusions can include filings that contain trade secrets, psychological evaluations, Department of Family and Children Services records, Temporary Protective Orders, documents that contain personal financial information or Social Security numbers.

Records sealed during criminal proceedings are often opened after the case is resolved.