JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The First District Court of Appeal reversed Circuit Court Judge Russell Healey for the fourth time Friday in matters stemming from the Michael Dunn trial.
In a major decision reaffirming the right of public access to the courts, the appellate court vacated Judge Healey's decision to exclude local media and the public from portions of jury selection during that high-profile trial.
The judge's decision, if allowed to stand, could have set precedent for public access in future criminal court cases, including the pending retrial of Michael Dunn, whose last trial ended in a hung jury. First Coast News and our news partners the Florida Times-Union along with other local media challenged the judge's decision to exclude the public from key portions of jury selection. The judge claimed courtroom space was too limited to allow media, and further contended that local media had agreed to be excluded. Attorneys for local media argued there had been no such concession, and the three judge appellate panel agreed, saying the judge's arguments were "unsupported by record evidence." The panel added that when it comes to court proceedings, "there exists a presumption in favor of openness [their emphasis]."
The court further found that jury selection is not a "bench conference" as attorneys for the state argued, and that State Attorney Angela Corey opined during the Dunn proceedings. Bench conferences, or "sidebars," are discussions that occur between attorneys and the judge out of the earshot of jurors, and are typically used to deal with procedural matters. In this case, appeals court made clear jury selection "is not a mere 'mechanical function" but "one of the essential stages of a criminal trial" and therefore an essential public part of any trial proceeding.
Healey, who was just permanently appointed to a circuit court seat on Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott, is slated to preside over the retrial of Dunn at a date yet to be set for this summer. Healey has had three previous orders vacated by the 1st DCA regarding public records access to audio tapes of Dunn's jailhouse phone conversations. Dunn is accused of killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis over loud music, a charge that resulted in a mistrial.