Judge seals evidence from Vanderbilt rape trial

The Tennessean reports that Judge Monte Watkins, in an unusual move, has sealed all evidence presented in the recent Vanderbilt rape trial of two former football players.

An excerpt from the story:

It is the third ruling in the case prohibiting increasingly more information from public disclosure. The newest order says it is “reasonable and appropriate” to seal all evidence that was presented during the 12-day trial. More than 75 exhibits — from text messages to clothing to computers — were presented during the trial, which was open to the public.

Judge Monte Watkins signed the expanded order on Wednesday, one day after Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, both 21, were convicted of raping an unconscious female student in a dorm at Vanderbilt. It was in place days before sealed surveillance video was aired on ABC’s “20/20” television news program, prompting scrutiny of how the video was released to the media.

In October 2013, Watkins signed a protective order preventing the release of photo and video evidence in the case to anyone but the defense attorneys. Then in June, in response to a request from the victim’s attorney, the judge expanded that order.

The broad expansion in January worries open court advocates.

“A decision like this, without there being any public hearing on whether such a broad order was needed or not, or some explanation as to the reasons for doing it, is very dangerous,” said Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. “The courts in this country have always been fairly open so the public has a way to see how judges are doing their job, how prosecutors are doing their job. There’s a reason for that openness.”

The Tennessean and a coalition of media agencies and open government groups are fighting for the release of some records that have been sealed. The coalition sued Metro government for access to third-party records, such as text messages between the football players and coaches, that were part of the investigation. The Tennessee Supreme Court said last month it would hear the media’s appeal in the public records case.

“We are aware of no other case in which a trial court ordered that all evidence introduced in a public trial be placed under seal after the trial was over,” said Robb Harvey of Waller, the attorney for the media coalition. “No hearing was conducted; no proof was presented; and no less restrictive measures were considered.”


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