A bizarre West Palm Beach murder trial has underscored the fundamental importance of freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial. The saga involves public records, a notorious jailhouse snitch and a judge who disregarded the First Amendment by muzzling a newspaper. An appeals court set things right Tuesday, but this tale underscores that constitutional rights require continuous protection.
Here's the story: Jamal Smith is charged with murder in Palm Beach County. A possible witness listed by prosecutors was the jailhouse snitch, a convicted murderer who had helped authorities build dozens of criminal cases. Smith's lawyer, assistant public defender Elizabeth Ramsey, discovered months ago that the snitch had made recorded phone calls from the jail, bragging how his skills as a "jailhouse lawyer" had elicited 60 confessions. Ramsey included transcripts in a court motion to prohibit the snitch from testifying against her client. Prosecutors did not object.
The Palm Beach Post obtained transcripts as public records from the court file and published them online and in excerpts in its print edition. The newspaper informed readers about the snitch's role in the legal system, including special treatment that included a private cellphone, a flat-screen television and a reduction of his own murder sentence. Yet Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jack Schramm Cox later agreed with the snitch's attorney that recorded jailhouse calls are somehow legally private. The judge sealed the transcripts even though defense lawyers all over town had already gotten copies, and he ordered the Post to remove the transcripts of the snitch's recorded calls and portions of its news story from its website. That was a digital age version of prior restraint — the government moving to block publishing information it considers harmful even though it already was online. The Post complied with the judge's order and appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal, which overturned Cox's orders Tuesday.
Besides sealing the transcripts and ordering the Post to remove the story and transcripts from its website, Cox ordered that no one could share the phone call transcripts with anyone else, an order that theoretically included anyone printing out an Internet search and dozens of defense attorneys who might appear before different judges. When Ramsey referred to the forbidden transcripts in court, Cox held her in contempt of court, pending a final hearing. When Ramsey asked Cox to step down from Smith's trial, he refused.
This was an egregious case of silencing free speech, ignoring public records laws and stomping on constitutional protections — and it resonated around the state. The Florida Society of News Editors had urged Cox to end his indefensible foray into judicial censorship. The appeals court reached the right conclusion in overturning Cox's orders. A strong written opinion should follow.
The snitch's call transcripts and the original news story were back on the Post's website Tuesday. As for a free press, citizens should remember that protecting basic freedoms remains an ongoing challenge.