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Media coalition intervenes, calls for broader court transparency in Baltimore officers' trials

A coalition of local and national media outlets has intervened in court to call for broader transparency and increased access to legal documents in the prosecution of the Baltimore police officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

The coalition, which includes The Baltimore Sun, filed a memorandum on Tuesday in support of its intervention in the case and is asking for access to sealed documents, trial transcripts, evidence, and future moments during trials when jurors leave the courtroom to view evidence. It also asked the court to refrain from admonishing jurors not to talk about their experiences after their service is concluded, as Judge Barry G. Williams did with jurors in the recently concluded trial of Officer William G. Porter.

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"Especially in a case like this, it's critical that the process be as transparent as possible, and we think there are a number of areas where transparency can be improved," said Nathan Siegel, an attorney for the media coalition. "They are issues that came up in the course of the first Porter trial. We thought the best thing to do was to try to address them now before the same issues arise" in the subsequent trials.

On Sunday The Sun reported that sealed documents were being filed in the officers' cases, and that Williams had asked the 12-member jury panel in Porter's trial not to talk about their experiences after the trial's conclusion. On Tuesday, additional sealed documents were discovered in Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr.'s case.

During Porter's trial, reporters were not allowed to observe jurors as they looked at the van in which 25-year-old Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody in April. Reporters were allowed to view evidence submitted during the trial at the end of each day, but were not provided copies of photographic and audio-visual evidence, as the new motions request.

The memorandum, filed in the Porter case, noted the coalition would seek similar relief in the remaining trials of the officers. Porter, whose trial ended last month with a hung jury, is scheduled to be retried this summer. Goodson, the driver of the police van in which Gray was injured, is set to go to trial next, starting with jury selection on Monday.

In addition to the Sun, the media coalition includes Bloomberg News, Hearst Stations, Inc., ABC News, Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, Sinclair Broadcast, Inc., The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, WJZ, WMAR, and the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The media coalition argued that any direction to jurors that they not discuss their experiences after the conclusion of their service would be an "unconstitutional prior restraint" on free speech.

The coalition noted that the court denied transcripts from the Porter case under a 2010 administrative order — issued amid the trial of then-Mayor Sheila Dixon for embezzling gift cards — that transcripts would not be provided by the court until "a decision, verdict or judgment has been reached in the case."

The coalition noted that, to its knowledge, no other Circuit Court in the state operates under a similar rule, and said the 2010 order violates the First Amendment because it does not present a "compelling reason" for why it was needed, nor was it tailored narrowly either in scope or duration. It said one unacceptable outcome of the rule is that parties to court proceedings in Baltimore can request bench conferences — discussions at the judge's bench that can't be heard in open court — and "effectively shield that portion of any proceeding from public access until the entire case is over, or potentially forever."

Such bench conferences have been common in pre-trial motions hearings in the officers' cases and during the Porter trial.

The coalition argued that the press have a "presumptive right" to court documents, and that the sealing of documents to-date in the Porter and Goodson cases has been done so without regard to Maryland requirements that notice be given and that the process of sealing documents be narrowly tailored.

"In both the Porter and Goodson cases, it would appear that these procedures were not followed," it wrote. "Moreover, it would appear very unlikely that a 'compelling' state interest exists that could support the wholesale sealing of entire categories of motions such as 'discovery disputes.'"

The court had previously acknowledged that it had told the parties in the Goodson case to file all motions related to discovery disputes under seal.

The media also have a "presumptive right" to transcripts and to copy evidence, the group wrote.

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