Securing Access: A First Amendment Win in Minneapolis
For dozens of prominent news organizations, the trial of Mohammed Noor was a must-cover. But their ability to monitor the proceedings and see all the evidence presented to the jury was in doubt until objections to court-imposed restrictions on access were filed by First Amendment litigator Leita Walker, a member of Ballard Spahr's widely regarded Media and Entertainment Law Group.
Mr. Noor, a Minneapolis police officer, fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond in the Summer of 2017. The unusual circumstances of the case—Ms. Damond was unarmed and was shot after calling 911 to report what she believed was a sexual assault happening in the alley behind her house—and the rarity of a police officer facing murder charges for on-duty conduct drew attention from news outlets as far away as Ms. Damond's native Australia. In addition, the Minnesota media had been reporting on the incident for almost two years and were keen to cover the trial.
Before the April 2019 trial began, a Hennepin County District Judge issued oral orders that would have blocked the press and public from viewing body-camera footage capturing the aftermath of the shooting, as well as photographs from the medical examiner's office. The trial court also indicated that the media-commissioned sketch artist might be prohibited from depicting jurors.
A coalition of eight media outlets—including the Star Tribune Media Company, Hubbard Broadcasting, and Minnesota Public Radio—objected and sought Ms. Walker's help. In her motion, she blended Constitutional arguments, contemporary examples (such as media access to graphic evidence used in the trial of Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes), and case-specific facts. She was successful. Just before the trial was to begin, the judge relaxed the restrictions and permitted the video and photographic evidence to be displayed not only to trial participants but to members of the press and public attending the trial. The judge also stated that no restrictions would be placed on the sketch artist's ability to depict jurors or any other trial participant. The judge explained, "The court, like the jury, must follow the law—even if I disagree with it."
As Ms. Walker sees it, the decision has more far-reaching implications.
"The circumstances of this case are heart-rending, and it is understandable how someone could want to treat the deceased victim and her family with reverence," Ms. Walker said. "Ultimately though, interests in privacy must give way to the First Amendment ideals of transparency and the Constitutional guarantee that criminal trials are open to the public so that the press, as a proxy for the public, can shed light on how our laws and judicial system work and the public can decide for themselves whether justice has been achieved."
Ms. Walker was assisted by Litigation Associates Christopher Proczko in Minneapolis and Thomas B. Sullivan in New York.