A South Carolina judge says he will release some police documents and other evidence in connection with the Charleston church shooting that claimed the lives of nine African-American worshippers.
Judge J.C. Nicholson said he first wanted to sit down with attorneys for the victims and the news media to review some of the more graphic evidence – including photographs of the crime scene – before deciding specifically what will be released.
During a hearing in Charleston on Wednesday, Nicholson also indicated the 911 calls would be released but that there had been no decision whether the tapes themselves or just simply transcripts would be released.
Various news organizations, including The State newspaper and The Associated Press, challenged Nicholson’s July 14 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.
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In an interview after the hearing, media lawyer Jay Bender said: “Nicholson said he ‘didn’t see how at this stage he could release (911) tapes of gunfire and people screaming and dying. He said, ‘I’m not worried about the news organizations you represent. I’m worried about the guy who’s going to put this stuff on the Internet’ ” in a sensationalist fashion.
Bender said there are several public purposes served by the release of such information. Transcripts of 911 calls will show “what law enforcement knew, when it knew and how it reacted. How is it police didn’t get there in time?” And in high profile crimes especially, the release of information increases public confidence and “reduces rumor and speculation,” he said.
As for photos, Bender said news organizations have no interest in showing graphic crime scene photos, “but there (could) be photos that help the public understand what is going on without showing bodies in pools of blood and that sort of thing.”
Attorneys for the victims’ families say the material should not be released because doing so would cause them great pain, interfere with their healing and 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 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 earlier order instating the gag 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 and church’s pastor 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.
In addition to the state murder charges, Roof faces dozens of federal charges, including some involving 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.”
Roof’s image was caught on a surveillance camera outside the church as he left the scene June 17, and he was arrested in western North Carolina the next morning.
He has been held without bond in an isolation unit at the Charleston County detention center.
Within days, postings Roof allegedly made on the Internet about how he hoped to ignite a race war were made public.
Roof is from Columbia and had been staying with friends in Red Bank, in Lexington County, before the shooting. At least one friend said Roof was determined to start a race war.
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.
Bender said, “I think we made some progress toward the release of information. We didn’t get everything, but we knew we weren’t going to.”
State staff writer John Monk contributed.