Ninth Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson is finally moving toward lifting a key part of his gag order regarding the shooting deaths of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in June. It’s the right thing to do.
He indicated at a hearing Wednesday that he would likely allow a transcript of relevant 911 calls to be made public, but he must still make the changes official. He shouldn’t delay, as South Carolina law deems such information should be open to the public.
Judge Nicholson imposed the gag order two months ago, saying he wanted to spare the survivors of the horror, and the families of the victims, additional trauma. He was particularly concerned about them being exposed to grisly photos of “people lying dead in a pool of blood on the church floor.”
The Post and Courier, which along with several other news media is asking him to lift the gag order, has not requested the crime scene photos.
But there is a big difference between seeing shocking photos and learning whether 911 calls were handled efficiently and appropriately.
Indeed, as S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said, “When there is a heinous crime ... it’s doubly important to have that process open.”
It is painful even to imagine another event as horrible as the Emanuel killings. But should something awful happen, everyone needs to be confident that local public agencies responding to it are handling their duties as well as possible. Calls to 911 can mitigate — or even stop — tragedies from occurring.
The judge should also lift the gag order from police reports and emergency radio communications, which warrant the same scrutiny. Judge Nicholson implied he would decide what information to make public on a piece-by-piece basis.
Reading and listening to accounts of the murders and the pursuit and arrest of Dylann Roof are certain to be difficult. The crime devastated people throughout the community — and the country.
Still, it is far better to have an accurate, complete picture of what happened, not just to understand the Emanuel murders, but to identify ways to handle threats and tragedies as skillfully as possible.