Florida has long had some of the most progressive open records laws in the nation, and democracy works best when government is transparent. But an emotional reaction by state lawmakers to keep secret some records following the fatal shooting of two Tampa police officers three years ago threatens to limit the public's access to a video of last month's theater shooting in Pasco County. The video should be public, and the law should be changed.
State lawmakers exempted audio and visual recordings of a person being killed from Florida's public records law in 2011, shortly after a police dashboard camera captured the murders of Tampa Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis. That law forced prosecutors Tuesday to craft a court order protecting themselves from a third-degree felony as they released to defense attorneys video evidence in the Jan. 13 shooting death of movie patron Chad Oulson. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa also issued a temporary, 24-hour order banning broad release of the video until he can hear arguments today on the defense's request to keep the video secret. But if the defense has access to the video, so should the public.
Attorneys for Curtis Reeves, 71, the retired Tampa police captain charged with killing Oulson and wounding his wife, Nicole, in a dispute over texting during movie previews, are seeking to seal the evidence to avoid influencing potential jurors. It's a stretch considering state law is clear that materials provided to defendants under discovery are public records and available to the public and news media.
Besides, prosecutors acknowledged the video recordings, from two different camera angles inside the cinema, contain no sound, are poorly lit and blurry enough that viewers would be "hard-pressed to identify anybody.'' That summary alone should give pause to a judge being asked to consider the applicability of that 2011 law intended to protect victims' families from further exposure to images from a homicide.
Nicole Oulson did not object to giving the evidence to Reeves' attorneys. Afterward, her lawyers said Oulson wants the public to see the video but wants it released at the discretion of prosecutors. That's an understandable position from a young widow, but not from officers of the court. Florida law demands that any doubt about the applicability of the exemption be resolved in favor of public disclosure.
The judge should authorize release of the video, and the public also should be allowed to view it today when prosecutors show it during Reeves' bail hearing. Legislators also should reconsider the 2011 law. While it's understandable lawmakers want to spare the families of crime victims more pain, it's more important for members of the public to see all of the evidence to reach their own conclusions about the integrity of the criminal justice system.