The Knoxville News Sentinel, my employer, has filed suit to unseal a secret file being used by defense attorneys in efforts to overturn convictions in the brutal torture and murders of a young couple in 2007. Evidence presented in the trials outaged the community.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file that details how the judge who presided over the cases was abusing prescription painkillers during the trials (the story actually is more sordid).
The investigation eventually led to the resignation and disbarment of the judge, but the contents of the investigative file never came to light.
Now, defense attorneys are using that file to demand new trials for their clients even while it remains sealed under order from Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood.
“Evidence has been introduced, reliance upon it will be indicated and objections will be filed, all of which will be considered by the court and ruled upon in secret,” newspaper attorney Richard Hollow wrote. “To cloak this (information) in secrecy is an error of constitutional proportions.”
“The Christian/Newsom trials may have been the most important exercise of justice Knoxville has seen in many years,” News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy said. “But now secret information is being used to argue that those verdicts be thrown out. The News Sentinel has a duty to challenge that secrecy and to try to bring to public light all the arguments and evidence influencing this crucial ruling.”
I won’t go as far as to say that only a newspaper could mount this war on local government secrecy; local TV stations have been willing to join in on First Amendment related issues in the past.
But I will say only local media have both the willingness, the motivation and the wherewithal to fight the issue in court.
Google and Yahoo and AOL and many others certainly have the wherewithal, but no willingness or motivation to fight a local battle. There may be individuals with the willingness or the motivation, but without the wherewithal for a protracted legal battle.
It’s a another touchstone of the importance of a vigorous and vibrant local media even in this Internet Age.
“There are times when a newspaper has no choice but to fight to force the government to conduct its business in public.”