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Lawyers to square off in Zimmerman evidence fight

By Jeff Weiner and Rene Stutzman, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Typically adversaries, the state and defense in the George Zimmerman case agree on at least one point: Media coverage is a huge problem and key evidence should be kept from the public.

However, lawyers representing more than a dozen newspapers and television stations across Florida and elsewhere argue the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is a matter of great interest and concern, and the public has a right to information.

The two sides will square off in court in Sanford Friday afternoon. At issue is evidence that includes the statements Zimmerman gave investigators, phone records and crime-scene photos.

In a motion seeking to have the documents sealed, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda argued that their release “will result in … an inability to seat a fair and impartial jury in Seminole County.”

The media companies — including the Orlando Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The New York Times and CBS News — argue there’s no evidence of that.

“Neither the state nor the defendant have met the stringent burden that accompanies requests to close public records,” according to one of a pair of motions filed this week by two media coalitions.

Under state law, when the prosecution and defense in a criminal case exchange evidence, it becomes public record, available to the media and anyone else. There are exemptions, however, and judges have the discretion to seal documents in some circumstances.

There are four motions set to be heard Friday — two from media groups, one from the state and one from the defense.

For Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. to seal the evidence, he must find that it’s “necessary to prevent a serious and imminent threat” to the judicial process.

“The case,” wrote defense attorney Mark O’Mara, “ … has garnered an enormous local, statewide, nationwide, and international focus.”

That may be so, wrote Rachel Fugate, the Orlando Sentinel’s lawyer, but “the fact that this case is a high profile case does not provide the parties with a unique privilege to shut down the flow of public information.”

Of the evidence the public hasn’t yet seen, Zimmerman’s statements to law enforcement may be the most important.

Prosecutors want them sealed, saying because they’re inconsistent with physical evidence, witness accounts and other Zimmerman statements, they amount to a confession. Confessions are exempt from state public records law.

Zimmerman, 28, is charged with second-degree murder. He told Sanford police he shot the unarmed Miami Gardens teen in self-defense after Martin knocked him to the ground and began slamming his head against the sidewalk.

Media companies argue the self-defense claim doesn’t amount to a confession, so the records should be released to the public. It’s not unusual for media lawyers to disagree with prosecutors and defense attorneys in high-profile cases. However, the state’s approach — withholding evidence without a court order — has drawn criticism.

When prosecutors released a mountain of evidence in the case earlier this month, several pages were blacked out and certain evidence was left out altogether.

De la Rionda’s boss, the case’s special prosecutor, Angela Corey, simultaneously filed a motion under seal asking that the documents to be sealed then re-filed it publicly last week.

Media companies say that was improper.

“The rule says the motion has to be filed in the open, so it’s good she filed a motion. It’s not good she filed it in secret,” said Jonathan D. Kaney Jr., a Daytona Beach lawyer and general counsel to the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit Florida group that lobbies for public access to government records and meetings.

The judge could decide Friday whether prosecutors were in the wrong and what additional evidence, if any, they must release to the public.

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