Some info in Roof case OK’d for release

FILE/GRACE BEAHM/STAFF Ninth Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson issued a gag order in mid-July in the prosecution of Dylann Roof.

The circuit judge in the Dylann Roof case Wednesday lifted parts of his gag order that limited the release of information about the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church.

Transcripts of the 911 calls and other documents about the shooting can now be released, according to the court order by 9th Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson.

The gag order will remain in place, however, for crime scene audio, video and images of the victims to maintain the constitutional protection of “fairness, respect and dignity” for the victims, the four-page order states.

“This court is particularly concerned with the harm that would be caused to the victims by releasing certain graphic crime scene photos and video as well as audio of the 911 calls,” the order said.

Law enforcement officers, investigators, attorneys and other officials also are barred from discussing or releasing that information.

All other materials that do not fall under the restricted categories are free for release, according to the judge.

Nicholson issued the gag order in July, citing defendant Roof’s right to a fair trial and noting privacy concerns for survivors and family members of the nine churchgoers slain during the June 17 shooting in downtown Charleston.

“This Court issued the Gag Order to protect the victims and their rights as well as to maintain the status quo in this case until the Court and the interested parties had the opportunity to review and address the materials at issue,” the court document states. “It is this Court’s belief that the Court and all interested parties have since had that opportunity.”

Wednesday’s court filings came two days after “interested parties” met to review and discuss the evidence in the case.

Modifications to the gag order were anticipated but filed sooner than expected, said Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and The Post and Courier.

Police reports and other records subject to release should be made public immediately, Bender said, as “the reason for the denial no longer exists.”

News media, including the newspaper, had challenged parts of the gag order, asking Nicholson to approve the release of certain information. The news organizations had asked for the records, particularly 911 calls, through S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests.

The newspaper’s executive editor, Mitch Pugh, maintained Wednesday that the 911 recordings should be released.

“As we’ve said before, The Post and Courier has no interest in publishing graphic crime scene photos from this attack. However, we continue to believe the public has the right and responsibility to inspect the 911 calls and other relevant public documents,” Pugh said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has so eloquently explained, our FOIA laws were created to allow an informed citizenry the codified ability ‘to hold the governors accountable to the governed.’ While we appreciate the judges’ concerns about the dignity of the victims, limiting the public’s access to public records — vital to a functioning democracy — is not the answer.”

It’s not clear when, or if, a transcript of the 911 calls will be released by Charleston County officials.

“We don’t have a transcript,” Shawn Smetana, the county’s spokesman, said Wednesday. “It’s something we’ve never done before in the past.”

Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson said the state is working with the city on getting the material not covered by the order ready for release. She told The Associated Press in an email that it would likely be released “within a week or so.”

The court will rule over any FOIA disputes related to the release of information in the case — a measure Bender referred to as a “great mechanism” to resolve to disputes “in a timely and economical manner.”

“Instead of having to file separate lawsuits against the police or whoever, we can file a motion before Judge Nicholson and he can rule over that dispute immediately,” Bender said.

Roof, 21, is charged in state court with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street. He faces the death penalty on those charges.

A federal grand jury also indicted the white man on hate-crime charges and religious freedom violations in the deaths of the nine black worshipers. Federal officials have not decided whether to pursue his execution.

Reach Christina Elmore at (843) 937-5908.