MN murder_denial access

Judge limits media access to evidence in Minnesota police shooting trial

April 4, 2019

The judge presiding over the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor ruled on March 29 that media and members of the public will be restricted from viewing “graphic evidence”—including body cam footage and photographs from the crime scene and medical examiner’s office—in the case that will be displayed for the jury.

At a final pretrial hearing, Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance said she was blocking this evidence from being seen by anyone aside from the jury and attorneys in the case because “there’s privacy interest involved,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. She called airing this evidence publicly “inflammatory, potentially” as it “shows the deceased in extremely compromising situations.”

Noor is accused of fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond, an Australian woman who had called police to alert them to a possible assault taking place in the alleyway behind her home. Noor allegedly shot and killed her when she approached his police cruiser. Jury selection in the case began on April 1.

A coalition of media representatives including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio filed a motion on April 2 objecting to Quaintance’s ruling barring media from viewing evidence, arguing it amounts to a unconstitutional “de facto closure of the courtroom.”

“Excluding the press and public from viewing evidence presented to the jury and other trial participants violates the Constitutional and common law rights of press and public access to criminal proceedings,” wrote Leita Walker, an attorney for the media coalition, in a memorandum supporting the motion.

As of publication, the motion had not been scheduled for a hearing. Jury selection in the case is ongoing.

Courts have upheld the notion that media outlets and the public have a right to “contemporaneous access” to evidence during a trial, Walker argued, citing the Second Circuit case ABC v. Stewart, where the court found “[t]he ability to see and to hear a proceeding as it unfolds is a vital component of the First Amendment right of access—not … an incremental benefit.” Additionally, Quaintance’s argument is invalid, Walker wrote, as the state of Minnesota “does not recognize a posthumous right to privacy.”

The judge’s decision to limit access to evidence “clearly crossed a constitutional boundary,” Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

In an order issued on March 27, Quaintance wrote that to preserve “order and decorum” in the courtroom, space devoted to the media will be limited to eight seats, of which four will be available to local media outlets and four to national and international outlets. Four seats each will be reserved for the family members of the victim and defendant, one for a sketch artists, which leaves only 11 seats for the public, according to Joe Spear, the president of the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune noted that other courtrooms in the building contain double the amount of seating.

The judge’s initial order stated that overflow seating will be available in another courtroom, where an audio feed of the proceedings will be played. But after media outcry, Quaintance issued an amended order the next day stating that a video feed would be available in that overflow courtroom as well.

Walker, the attorney for the media coalition, in a March 29 letter to Judge Ivy Bernhardson, the Chief Judge of Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District, asked that the trial be moved to a larger courtroom, or a second overflow room be reserved for media. “The Coalition is dismayed that, on the eve of trial, uncertainties remain about whether the press and public will be able to adequately monitor one of the highest profile trials the State of Minnesota has ever seen,” Walker wrote. In response, Judges Bernhardson and Quaintance on April 1 added seven more media seats to the existing courtroom, according to the Star Tribune.

Quaintance’s order also banned all electronic or recording devices, including cell phones, tablets, and laptops, from the entire floor of the courthouse where the trial was taking place. 

— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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