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In police killing trial, new law shields evidence — and public's right to know

It is the prime piece of evidence in the upcoming trial of Dontae Morris, the man accused of murdering two Tampa police officers.

And you, the public, won't be allowed to see it.

A police dash-cam video caught what happened that June night three years ago: a car pulled over for a missing tag, a warrant discovered for the passenger, then what was supposed to be his arrest. But the video shows, in a terrible split second, two Tampa police officers gunned down and the man running away.

How important is this video? Moments before the shooting, the suspect identifies himself and even spells it out for the officers — "Morris … Dontae … D-O-N-T-A-E … M-O-R-R-I-S." Defense lawyers argued unsuccessfully that a jury should never see it. In talk of the trial around the courthouse, you hear people say things like: A prosecutor could practically show that video to a jury and then just sit down.

But you, the public, don't get to see it, to analyze it, to know for yourself what it shows in a case in which the accused faces the very real possibility of a death sentence.

A Florida law created in the wake of the shootings of Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis weighs concerns for grieving families against the public's right to know. It takes into account the brutal state of a world in which such a video could go viral on the Internet, where it could be seen by the victims' children in perpetuity.

Under this law, photo, video and audio evidence showing a killing — and of what happened before and after — is no longer public record.

So when jurors being selected in Orlando come to Tampa for the trial, only they, the lawyers and the judge get to see the dash-cam video. Not the public that gathers in the courtroom for a public airing of the facts. Reporters also can't view it any longer and report what they saw.

Who would want to see such a thing? Why should families be further victimized by those who would exploit this, particularly given the anonymity of the Internet?

Because there's good reasons to keep public records public.

Video of a 14-year-old boy who died after being manhandled by guards at a juvenile boot camp got such facilities shut down in Florida. A jury later exonerated the guards. And people who agreed or disagreed had at least seen the evidence for themselves.

With this law, that video would never have been seen by you.

And how okay are you with taking law enforcement's word for what the evidence shows?

Shortly before this became law, there was a delicate compromise.

The defense wanted the dash-cam video sealed until the trial. The judge at the time, Daniel Sleet, made a more thoughtful decision: It could be viewed at the State Attorney's Office but not released. So reporters armed only with notebooks watched and reported back to you.

The new law has this caveat: Anyone can ask a judge to be allowed to review or copy this kind of video, photo or audio evidence. The judge then weighs "whether such disclosure is necessary for the public evaluation of governmental performance" against the intrusion on the victims' family.

Seems to me that earlier ruling — sensitivity, but also the public's right to see for themselves — struck a better balance for today's world.

In police killing trial, new law shields evidence — and public's right to know 11/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, November 7, 2013 10:07pm]
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