A coalition of 17 media organizations — representing many of the major television networks and national and state newspapers — has successfully opposed five separate efforts by prosecutors and defense lawyers to block public access to information in a Florida murder trial that has garnered international and national headlines.
George Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder in the February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator for his gated Sanford, Fla., community, has pleaded not guilty and claims Martin attacked him. Martin's family said that their son was taking a shortcut home after buying a package of Skittles and an iced tea at a nearby store. The family said Zimmerman was following Martin because of his race.
At the beginning of the proceedings, the duty judge sealed the entire file without first providing notice to the media. Lawyers representing the media coalition immediately filed a motion explaining why the file could not be sealed (even if notice had been provided), and the judge to whom the case was assigned unsealed the file without waiting for oral argument.
Once the court file was open, prosecutors and Zimmerman's attorney joined together to ask the court to seal documents that had been provided to Zimmerman under the discovery provisions of Florida's Rules of Criminal Procedure. Under Florida's Public Records Law, discovery in a criminal proceeding becomes a public record once it is provided to the person arrested. The media coalition filed a response to the request, and after reading the parties' briefing and hearing oral argument, the judge denied the request and ordered the state to provide the media with a wide range of materials including Zimmerman's statements to law enforcement, witness statements and results of a voice-stress analysis performed on Zimmerman. Zimmerman's attorney asked the judge to reconsider the ruling and, after additional briefing and another hearing, the judge upheld the initial ruling.
A few weeks later, Zimmerman's attorney sent subpoenas to third parties seeking information about Martin to suggest he was the aggressor. Prosecutors asked the court to seal all subpoenas, information produced in response to the subpoenas and any hearing relating to subpoenas. After hearing oral argument on the media coalition's opposition, the judge (at this point, the third judge to whom the case was assigned) denied the request.
Next, with Zimmerman and his counsel increasingly speaking in public about their view of the evidence, prosecutors asked the court to enter a gag order prohibiting the parties from speaking publicly about the case. After a two-hour oral argument by the media coalition, the judge issued a written order denying the request.