Saturday, November 18, 2017
Editorials

Public disclosure of pretrial evidence is essential

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Duval County State Attorney Angela Corey is allergic to sunshine. The special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case regularly complains that cases are tried in the media. Now she suggests the Legislature should change the public records law so that no evidence becomes public until a trial starts. That would erode public confidence in the criminal justice system and make it more difficult to hold prosecutors like Corey accountable for their actions. Ethical prosecutors and police officers have nothing to fear from openness.

The last thing Florida needs is a veil over the criminal justice system. With few exceptions, records and witness statements become public when the prosecution provides them to the defense or places them in the public court file. There is a legitimate public interest in such openness, because it enables Floridians to better evaluate the performance of elected prosecutors and the fairness of the court system. It also serves as a check on prosecutors who could be tempted to improperly hold back evidence from the defense if they could keep their entire case secret until trial.

In the Martin case, the evidence that has become public so far suggests a more difficult case than it initially appeared. For example, a police photograph and medical reports document the injuries to George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed the 17-year-old in February in a gated community in Sanford. Martin's parents disagreed over whether a voice screaming for help in the background of 911 calls was the voice of their son. And an FBI analyst could not determine the identity of the voice. This openness reveals the complexity of the high-profile case, and that is particularly healthy as the public discussion continues about guns, race and the flawed "stand your ground" law that Zimmerman is expected to invoke in his defense.

Corey complains that the evidence is bouncing around the Internet and that it does not reflect her entire case. Some evidence, including telecommunications and Zimmerman's taped statements to police, remains secret even though it is debatable whether it is exempt from the public records law. But the answer to the special prosecutor's misplaced concerns she aired at a recent Tiger Bay meeting in Jacksonville is more openness, not less. There are plenty of examples in Florida of high-profile cases that proceeded just fine even as the public and the media followed every turn.

Public records are essential in holding prosecutors such as Corey accountable, and her record bears scrutiny. She charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which would require the state to prove that he shot Martin with a "depraved mind." That seemed like an aggressive approach when the charge was announced last month, and the evidence released so far does not lessen those concerns. Corey also charged a 12-year-old as an adult last year for killing his 2-year-old brother. And a University of North Florida study this year concluded that her get-tough-on-crime approach is driving Duval County's incarceration rate up even as the crime rate and arrests are down. No wonder Corey is not the biggest fan of public records and openness.

Florida's courts cannot be turned into star chambers. The public disclosure of evidence before trial reinforces confidence in the legal system, and it should not compromise the defendant's right to a fair trial.

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