Media access to the Bliefnick proceedings: Why we care

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Pool file photo - Mike Sorenson, Herald-Whig

Muddy River News, along with WGEM-TV and The Quincy Herald-Whig, are working together to obtain access to court proceedings and filings involving the Timothy Bliefnick murder trial.  The media is unified that this information should be accessible to our readers and viewers not someday, but now.

Judge Robert Adrian took the matter under advisement and ruled against us. We have jointly appealed Judge Adrian’s decision.  It is our hope that a higher court will see things differently.

Yes, we have been told we will have access to the evidence that is presented during the course of the trial and once it is complete. While that is very gracious of the court and the state, it is not enough. We wish to cover the events in real time as they are happening. We will be able to do so as the trial begins this week, but we should have been allowed to do so all along.

Constitutional Balancing

Publicity of court proceedings and filings brings into conflict two important constitutional rights.  

The First Amendment assures a free and open press.  The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to an impartial jury.  

By its position as the “first” among amendments to the Constitution, we media folks consider a free and open press along with other First Amendment protections to be the most sacred of our constitutional protections.  We nonetheless recognize the importance of a fair trial.  

A fair trial rarely would be denied by recognizing the constitutionally protected role of a free and open press.  To the contrary, since the Norman Conquest of England a public trial and proceedings have been considered important to promote respect for and confidence in the judicial system.  That’s among the reasons this right was incorporated in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

We Are the Public’s Eyes and Ears

A recent survey by the National Center for State Courts indicates that there is declining public trust in the courts. This decline has been described as “staggering.” Our judicial system is critically important to our society.    

It is the media that serves as agents of the public.  This is especially important with respect to governmental agencies such as the courts.  The media are the eyes and ears of those who are unable to witness court proceedings.  The fact that the media is there enhances the integrity and quality of what takes place.  

No doubt there are some involved in criminal proceedings who would prefer what’s happening to be cloaked in secrecy. But is this really in the public’s interest?  

In the Bliefnick case we understand that it was the Office of the Adams County States Attorney – not the Defendant – that initially sought a blanket closing of proceedings and sealing records.  Defendant’s counsel then joined the request.  This was all done orally and not through a written request that we could scrutinize.  Regardless, the media should be allowed to do its job.  

Evidentiary motions are rarely sealed in Adams County and certainly not done in one fell swoop. The excuse of “extensive publicity” and the possibility of a change of venue does not meet the threshold to produce such an action.

Responsible Journalism

We in the media – clearly our local media – practice responsible journalism.  There are things we learn or could be reported which are not.  We report news.  Criminal cases and proceedings involving serious offenses are news.  

Responsible journalism benefits prosecutors and defendants alike along with the public at large.  

How frequently do law enforcement officials reach out to the media to seek information through the media?  How often do members of the public come forward with inculpatory or exculpatory evidence that would not have happened but for media coverage?  How often does the media inform the public of health, safety, financial, and other risks?  How often does journalism uncover wrongdoing that would have otherwise gone undetected?

What is lost when proceedings are closed?  A great deal in the view of the media.

Our community should feel comfortable in the fact that local media does care.  We will continue to do so.

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