If you have any doubt of the vital importance to justice and the power of democracy that public records laws like Florida's famed Sunshine Law have; then ask the parents of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps the most significant turning point in the thread of events that led to today's court appearance of George Zimmerman was the release of the critical 911 tapes last month.
The recordings reveal not only that Zimmerman was instructed by the 911 operator to not pursue Martin but they also capture Martin's last utterances -- futile calls for help moments before he was shot. Prior to their release Bill Lee, Chief of Sanford's Police Department, aggressively championed Zimmerman's position stating they had evidence he acted in self-defense and that had they arrested and charged him they would have committed a serious violation of his civil rights.
Armed with the full information the City's Commission voted that they had "no confidence" in the Chief who subsequently stepped down. Yet Sanford officials initially violated Florida's Sunshine Laws by denying access to these vital tapes. It was only upon the intercession of Mayor Jeff Triplett that the law was allowed to have its effect and the truth was laid open for all to see or hear for themselves. In the wake of these revelations the "Justice for Trayvon" movement exploded across the nation. Its growing persistence ultimately forced perhaps the greatest 180 degree turn in legal history -- Zimmerman went from a position of guaranteed freedom from any responsibility in the teenager's death to facing 25 years to life charged with "profiling" Martin and subsequently committing second degree murder.
The original actions violating the public records component of the Sunshine Law was significant enough for Lawrence O'Donnell to declare on his MSNBC program "The Last Word" that their having been withheld from the public suggested a "cover-up" on the part of the Sanford Police Department.
From the central importance the State's Public Records law played in getting the defendant before a court, however, a quiet alliance of the two competing attorneys foreshadows another turn to withhold from the public records that the law guarantees.
Their effort seeks to get the Court to "seal" off from public view not only those documents traditionally restricted in legal cases but to go beyond the normal limitations of a trial and get the Court to judicially nullify the Public Records Law for the duration of the trial.
In Florida this law derives from a right guaranteed by the State's Constitution to all members of the public.
In fact we do not have to wait for the Judge's potential ruling to see these rights denied. Angela Corey, the State Attorney appointed as Special Prosecutor, recently had the Sanford City remove from its website certain key records. Included in this are the now famous videos of Zimmerman entering the Police Station seemingly unscathed and undisturbed. Those videos were also originally released under the requirement of the Public Records Law.
Today another overt violation of the law took place with little notice, even by the journalists who gathered at the Courthouse for the First Appearance. The story of the day has been the profound revelations contained in the charging affidavit. The document introduces for the first time the idea that Zimmerman had "profiled" Martin and reveals other details that explain the unexpected charge of Second Degree Murder.
This was revealed when the gathered reporters were given a copy of the "Affidavit of Probable Cause" that subsequently led the news throughout the day and into the evening.
Yet there was something very strange in that document of which no news entity took immediate notice. In the last paragraph as the facts culminate as it details the prosecutor's cause for bringing the stronger charge, unexplainably there is a long black line covering its first sentences.
Someone had redacted from the affidavit the two key facts that
" Zimmerman shot Martin in the Chest. When police arrived Zimmerman admitted shooting Martin"
No indication of the legal basis for this censoring is given in the document and there is no statutory exemption from the Public Records Law, Chapter 119 of Florida's Statutes, which would appear to authorize the redaction. (See the Redacted Affidavit and the Unredacted Affidavit)
The problem, however, is far more troubling even than this. For the past two weeks I have attempted to obtain three sets of records which are unquestionably public records under the law from the Sanford Police Department.
When I first contacted the Police Department Monday April 2nd and asked to speak with the public records custodian I was told I had, instead, to make my requests to an unidentified individual outside of the department with an email address ending in a .doj.