JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Circuit Judge Russell Healey heard arguments Thursday morning regarding his plan to delay the release of public documents in the Michael Dunn case until he can review them.
Healey's decision followed the highly publicized release of Dunn's jailhouse letters, which many considered racially inflammatory.
Michael David Dunn, 46, is accused of shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis last November in a dispute over loud music. The case, which has generated national headlines, grew even more heated after the release of letters in the discovery process.
Local media, including First Coast News, have asked the judge to set aside his decision, saying it would run counter to Florida's Public Records laws.
"Once the state furnishes documents to defense, they become public record," observed George Gabel of Holland & Knight, representing both media outlets.
State Attorney Angela Corey argued in support of the judge's decision, saying the wide dissemination of some information - even though public record - could taint the local jury pool and require a change of venue.
"We have a right to get a fair trial," Corey said. "We believe those rights easily outweigh any interest of the media or the public."
Dunn's attorney Corey Strolla agreed, echoing case law that "widespread adverse publicity" as a justification for limiting public records disclosures. "There has been nothing but adverse widespread publicity regarding Mr. Dunn," he observed.
Corey also took issue with the state's broad public records laws. "It's time for our public records laws to change," she said. But Gabel countered that, absent any legislative change to state public records law, there is no provision for a judge to insert himself in the process.
"There are no judicial exemptions under the public records law," he noted. "For your honor to insert yourself into the picture at that point it becomes a judicial exemption."
Gable noted that while Healey might be relied upon to review and release documents promptly, his decision did not put any time limit on the delay. Gable suggested the precedent could invite "mischief" allowing another judge to essentially sit on public records until a trial began.
Healey said he would not issue a written order until early next week, but he appeared inclined to somehow limit pretrial media access to potentially sensitive information. "Something has to be done," he said, "which is what I'm trying to do."
Healey also seemed baffled by the attention the Dunn case has generated - and concerned about the media onslaught.
"They're having billions of hits on some of these websites across the country about this ... " Healey marveled. "Again, just kind of confounds me. This is Jacksonville. We're just a regular town I don't understand it."
The case is set for trail Feb. 3. Dunn's next pretrial hearing is Nov. 21.
First Coast News