Media outlets, including Tribune Co., the Miami Herald and the Associated Press, on Monday sought to have court documents unsealed in the case of George Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder in the Sanford, Fla., shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Trayvon Martin.
The motions are the latest friction between the public’s right to know and the desire of lawyers to protect the interests of defendants, especially in high-profile cases. The court records in the case were sealed last week; normally, they’d be a public document in Florida.
In separate motions filed Monday with the Circuit Court for Seminole County, newspapers, television stations and other media outlets argue that the records should not have been sealed when Zimmerman made his first court appearance last week. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked that access to the court file and future discovery documents be restricted, and the office of special prosecutor Angela B. Corey agreed.
Zimmerman, 28, is charged with shooting Martin, 17, in what has become a highly publicized case that has given rise to national demonstrations and increased attention to such issues as race and gun control. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, maintains he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin; the prosecution argues that he “profiled” the teenager.
The media organizations are seeking a hearing to argue that they -- and their responsibility to inform the public -- should have been considered before the records were closed.
“The criminal justice process belongs to the public, and it’s supposed to be difficult to seal documents that are part of criminal trials, especially given the number of important public issues raised in this case. The media companies we represent are challenging the fact that these records were sealed without prior notice to the public, and on nothing more than Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney asking that they be sealed. The law does not allow that,” attorney Scott D. Ponce of the law firm Holland and Knight said in an email.
Ponce represents a coalition of media companies including the Miami Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, the New York Times, NBC, CNN, E.W. Scripps Co. and Gannett Co. as well as the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit group.
Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, makes many of the same arguments in its motion, written by Rachel E. Fugate of the law firm Thomas & LoCicero. The filing is on behalf of Tribune’s Florida properties, the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
“The defense’s request to seal the court file and all future discovery is premature and unsupportable. Such broad closure of court records is unprecedented in the State of Florida and unwarranted in this case where transparency of the process is critical,” Fugate said in an email.
No date to argue the media request has been set. A bond hearing for Zimmerman is scheduled for Friday before Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler.