A trial judge's decision to seal court records related to the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin is unjustified and a violation of Florida's presumption that court records will be open and available. It is in the public interest that closure be limited to only the narrowest of circumstances. Nothing suggests that the case charging George Zimmerman with second-degree murder qualifies for such extraordinary secrecy.
In a motion filed Monday, various media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times, called for lifting the closure order that had been requested by Zimmerman's attorney and granted by Circuit Judge Jessica Recksiedler. In a case now well known nationally, Zimmerman is the 28-year-old Hispanic neighborhood watch captain arrested earlier this month in the Feb. 26 shooting death of Martin, an African-American teen. Zimmerman was charged only after a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott concluded Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law did not apply.
As the prosecution proceeds, the public will be scrutinizing the case for any hallmarks of bias. Will Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, get a fair hearing? Will the victim's interests be well represented? How will the "stand your ground" law be employed? The public is already suspicious of how the system has handled this case. By sealing court records during the discovery phase, the judge is feeding concerns the case may not be handled with routine impartiality.
Defense attorneys seeking the closure of court documents argue that pretrial publicity taints the local jury pool in a way that can make seating an unbiased jury virtually impossible. But closure of court records is only allowable if Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, can show Zimmerman would be denied a fair trial if the records are public. The Florida Supreme Court has said defendants must demonstrate that closure is needed to prevent a "serious and imminent threat" to justice with no alternative available beyond moving the trial, and that closure would be effective in preserving the rights of the accused.
Recksiedler, who recused herself from the case Wednesday, should have required O'Mara to offer evidence. But even if there had been a full hearing, closure would not be justified. Plenty of high-profile criminal cases have been fairly adjudicated. Jurors are often able to put aside what they have read or seen. Attorneys can question potential jurors about possible bias during jury selection. It is also true that after such intensive national news coverage, sealing court records now wouldn't do much good. But a judge must find that closure is effective in order for it to be granted.
Zimmerman's prosecution is newsworthy because it goes to the heart of whether the legal system can provide equal justice in a racially charged case to both a controversial defendant and a sympathetic victim. Keeping the process open will add to public confidence in the criminal justice system.