Florida appeals court overturns judge’s gag order in infamous ‘stop sign’ case

Tuesday, August 4, 1998

Reporters and the public must be allowed back into a Tampa, Fla., courtroom, a state appeals court has ruled.

Florida media groups successfully challenged a judge's decision to seal transcripts and prohibit spectators from entering the courtroom during reconsideration of the “stop sign” trial in which three people were convicted of causing traffic deaths by removing a stop sign from a busy intersection.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham last week shut reporters and the public out during testimony about possible prosecutorial abuse during the 1996 trial. He then ordered two witnesses who had testified behind closed doors not to reveal what they had said, and subsequently denied reporters access to transcripts of the secret hearing.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals halted the proceedings last Thursday, one day before deciding to lift Mitcham's gag order on attorneys and witnesses and his order that news media not publish anything from the closed hearing.

Mitcham's orders came last Wednesday as he was about to rule on whether to consider testimony that would support defense attorney Joe Episcopo's claim of misconduct by the prosecution.

According to Episcopo, who has requested a new trial for the young adults, state prosecutor Leland Baldwin threatened a state witness with prosecution unless he testified a certain way in the 1996 trial.

The case involves Nissa Baillie, Christopher Cole and Thomas Miller, who were convicted of pulling up a stop sign at a busy county road and causing a traffic accident that killed three others. Each was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. All three defendants have been released pending appeal.

The St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-Channel 8 are among Florida media organizations that immediately appealed Mitcham's decision to clear the courtroom.

Barry Richards, an attorney representing the Florida Press Association, said: “The First Amendment Supreme Court has set a high standard for judges to remove media [from] the courtroom. The standard is pretty stiff, although there are circumstances under which it's permitted.”

An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times criticized “Mitcham's mistake.”

“Mitcham achieved nothing by closing the hearing and gagging witnesses and the media,” read the editorial. “He actually made matters worse by giving Episcopo's claim publicity. He made it impossible for the public to decide for itself whether it has a loose cannon for a prosecutor or a defense attorney using smears to impede justice.

“The First Amendment guarantees the right of the public to attend court proceedings. Very few exceptions exist. Openness is a fundamental component of American democracy and a necessary ingredient to ensure fairness and public confidence in the criminal justice system. For that reason, proceedings may be closed only when the court finds a 'compelling government interest.' Mitcham made no such finding,” the Times concluded.

An editorial in the Tampa Tribune said that Mitcham's actions were surprising, considering the judge has declared himself a friend of the media.

“Under Florida law, as well as the First Amendment, the public enjoys a right of access to criminal trials and records. A judge cannot unilaterally close a courtroom without reason.

Perhaps more importantly, closing the courtroom violated the defendants' constitutional rights by denying them a public trial,” the Tribune said.

Episcopo said that the appeals court overturned Mitcham's order because the judge “didn't give a reason why he did what he did. They decided that it shouldn't have been done.”

The request for a retrial is still being heard by Mitcham.