Coalition of journalists, watchdogs sue for right to broadcast court recordings

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Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse. Photo via Baltimore City Circuit Courts.

A coalition of local journalists, watchdogs and legal groups filed a federal lawsuit today arguing for the right to broadcast recordings of criminal trials in Maryland.

Under a section of Maryland’s Code of Criminal Procedure, the publication of audio and visual records from a trial, hearing, motion or argument during a criminal proceeding is forbidden, even though citizens can purchase audio recordings and review video–complete with bench conferences–at the courthouse.

This ban, the plaintiffs argue, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. In asking for it to be removed, the plaintiffs say putting these materials into the public sphere would provide greater government transparency and accountability.

Journalists Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods, who are working on a book and documentary about the Gun Trace Task Force, said Baltimoreans deserve to hear how members of the corrupt unit gave false testimony on the stand–not just see it in print. They have audio they want to use in the film, but are hesitant to do so because of the ban. (Full disclosure: I worked with both at City Paper and count them as friends. Soderberg has also written for Baltimore Fishbowl.)

“Seeing evidence of sworn police officers lying in court is in the public interest,” Soderberg said in a statement. “And the ability for the public to hear—not only read about—what happens in court will bring some much-needed transparency to Baltimore.”

As of today, every member of the task force has been sentenced to prison as part of the group’s scheme to rob drug dealers and citizens of money and drugs–often, the latter was re-sold–plant evidence, falsify testimony and other misconduct.

Two local community organizations, Open Justice Baltimore and the Baltimore Action Legal Team, are also parties in the suit. Both groups “want to use audio recordings from high-profile criminal trials to promote transparency within Baltimore’s criminal justice system and to highlight structural deficiencies in that system,” according to a press release.

The former organization just launched a searchable database of Baltimore cops, and one of the organizers, Megan Kenny, said putting out recordings would allow people to cut through the “gaslighting and misinformation by the media, police, and other public officials.”

“The ability to hear public proceedings without having to travel to a courthouse not only makes this information more accessible to those with mobility or financial constraints, it also allows the people to make their own informed decisions,” she said.

A Prince George’s County activist group, Life After Release, is also a party in the suit.

They are all being jointly represented by Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

The lawyers earlier this month sent letters to the chief administrative judges in Baltimore and Prince George’s County asking what harm publishing these recordings would have when the information is already available to anyone in the public who chooses to come down and ask for it. To date, they have not received a response, they said.

A representative from the Maryland Judiciary said the court could not comment “due to pending litigation.”

The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection last month filed a circuit court lawsuit on behalf another local journalist, Justine Barron, after the Court Reporter’s Office denied her request for audio under a new policy that only permitted parties in the case to obtain recordings. (Full disclosure: Barron has also written for Baltimore Fishbowl.)

That rule was put into effect after journalist Amelia McDonell-Parry told the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, via a letter from the Georgetown University Law Center, she intended to use court audio for a podcast looking into the Keith Davis Jr. case. (Yet another disclosure: I was interviewed for the podcast.) Barron and McDonell-Parry had previously worked together on a podcast investigating the death of Freddie Gray.

In a statement, Barron said last month that court audio is essential for looking deeper into cases–for journalists and everyday citizens alike.

“The availability of courtroom audio is important for journalists, like myself, and for the public to understand the full scope of what happens during trials—not all of which is apparent in a transcript,” she said. “Like most people, I don’t have full days or weeks to watch trial video at the courthouse. I’m frustrated that the local courts are suddenly using their powers to restrict access to their own proceedings.”

Brandon Weigel

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