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Carlton: Making a public case for video in the movie shooting case

As the previews rolled inside a darkened Wesley Chapel movie theater last month, two strangers argued. There was a gun, a shot.

And security video was rolling.

That video could turn out to be powerful evidence in the case of the man killed after an argument over texting in the theater. It could speak to the ongoing debate over Florida's "stand your ground" law.

Depending on its clarity, that video might help show who was the aggressor, who acted reasonably and who did not — under a law that says in some circumstances, a man with a gun does not have to back down.

And unless a judge says differently today, Florida law says We The People can't view that evidence.

Passed in 2011 after the shooting deaths of two Tampa police officers were captured on a patrol car's dashboard camera, the law makes releasing pictures, video or audio recordings of the killing of a person a third-degree felony. Only a victim's spouse, parents or adult child are allowed access to such records.

Which means reporters who act as the public's eye can't view them, broadcast them or write about what they do and do not show.

The law was created out of sensitivity for the two slain officers' families, to guard against voyeurism gone viral. It is no doubt well-intended, and also overreaching.

This isn't about insensitivity or, as some seem to view it, creepy nosiness. It's about keeping the justice system as open as possible. Because in all forms of government, when there's a chance to do important public business outside the public eye, sooner or later someone will come along to take advantage.

And here's the thing: Judges could easily rule case-by-case without this blanket ban. (Making rulings specific to cases is one reason we have judges in the first place.) Before the law passed, a Hillsborough judge allowed the video of the police shootings to be viewed so reporters could describe it, but didn't let anyone record it. Seemed a reasonable compromise in that case.

In the movie theater shooting, attorneys for the victim's wife said they would defer to prosecutors on releasing the video. Prosecutors have asked for guidance from the judge, but also said they wouldn't object if he wanted to view it privately for today's hearing.

A prosecutor said Tuesday the video was not graphic.

We don't know what the video shows, but it could say something about justice in this case, not to mention the law.

Could the victim who was texting, 43-year-old Chad Oulson, really have been the aggressor, as a defense lawyer said — or will the video show otherwise? Was Curtis Reeves Jr., the 71-year-old retired Tampa police captain, reasonably in fear of being seriously hurt or killed when he drew his gun and fired — an exemption under the law?

Today Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa is expected to decide whether to release the video to news organizations requesting it. The law says a judge can include restrictions he thinks appropriate. The law says a judge should balance the family's privacy with "whether such disclosure is necessary for the public evaluation of governmental performance."

It's a time-honored way to keep the system honest, if only because everyone involved knows the public is watching.

Unless they can't.

Carlton: Making a public case for video in the movie shooting case 02/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 8:18pm]

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