JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In a motion filed in Circuit Court Tuesday, lawyers for First Coast News and The Florida Times-Union asked Judge Russell Healey to reverse several previous decisions restricting public records in the Michael Dunn case.
The motion could have far-reaching implications, since it asks the judge to "unseal all sealed documents in the record," which would include witness names. That may lead to the release of the many hours of recorded phone conversations that defendant Dunn has made while in jail, because witness names are part of the reason prosecutors have said they need to redact the tapes.
Dunn is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, a former Wolfson High School student. Dunn, who is white, is accused of shooting Davis, who is African-American, after a dispute over loud music. Dunn has pleaded not guilty.
The case has stirred debate about the rights of the public and media to access documents released in pre-trial discovery. According to Florida's broad public records laws, any court filling is public record unless it is specifically exempted by law or court order. According to the rules of judicial administration and previous case law, media must be given notice of any order to seal court records, and an opportunity to respond in an evidentiary hearing.
According to Tuesday's motion, Judge Healey didn't do either of those things. Instead, he issued orders in April and August, limiting access to public records without notifying media, and without holding a hearing to determine the need to seal the record. Tuesday's motion asks the judge to set aside those orders.
The motion also asks the judge to refrain from any future ex parte communications with lawyers for the prosecution or defense. A transcript of a November meeting shows Healey discussed at length a motion by local media challenging his public records restrictions. Both State Attorney Angela Corey and defense attorney Cory Strolla were part of the discussion, but lawyers for the media were neither present nor told about the discussion. It wasn't until media lawyers appealed the case to the 1st District Court of Appeals that a transcript was generated exposing the ex parte discussion.
The 1st DCA reversed Judge Healey in December, with one judge characterizing the private conversations as "beyond just disturbing," but that decision has not prompted any formal action by the court. Healey, a county court judge, does not typically preside in Circuit Court. Two previous judges, both Circuit Court Judges, recused themselves from the case.