CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina judge was set to hear arguments Wednesday on whether to release 911 calls and other documents in the shooting deaths of nine parishioners at a church.
Various news organizations, including The Associated Press, are challenging Judge J.C. Nicholson’s order preventing attorneys from discussing the case and preventing the release of emergency calls, witness statements, coroner reports and other documents stemming from the June 17 shootings at Emanuel AME Church.
Attorneys for the victims’ families say the material should not be released because doing so would violate the victims’ rights to privacy.
The judge expressed concern earlier that the right to a fair trial for Dylann Roof, who faces nine counts of murder and other charges in state court, could also be jeopardized by pretrial publicity. The state has said it will seek the death penalty in the case.
Attorney Taylor Smith, representing the AP and other media organizations, wrote in a motion filed earlier that “while we have great sympathy to those families who have lost loved ones, under South Carolina law these persons have no privacy rights that would outweigh the public interest in access to records which reveal the performance of government.”
He also argued that the judge’s order violates the finding of the General Assembly that “public business should be conducted in an open and public manner” and people should be given access to public records “unless a narrowly construed exemption applies.”
But Gedney Howe III, representing the estate of Clementa Pinckney, the state senator who was one of the shooting victims, said in his own motion the court should block release of documents including “videos, photographs or tape recordings of the victims.”
He noted that there is “no identifiable public purpose” in the release of such material and that the South Carolina Victims Bill of Rights requires that victims be treated with fairness, respect and dignity.
Roof also faces dozens of federal charges including hate crimes and obstruction of the practice of religion.
William Nettles, the United States attorney for South Carolina, wrote in a friend of the court brief that Nicholson should keep the order in place.
Nettles wrote that releasing documents and recordings “would violate victims’ rights, compromise victims’ dignity and invade victims’ privacy. Disclosure may well jeopardize the rights to a fair trial held by both the defendant and the public.”
Jury selection in the federal case has been set for Nov. 3. Roof’s trial on the state charges has been tentatively set for July 11, 2016.