WPTA’s Legal Battle to use Court Audio

IBA member station WPTA in Fort Wayne is currently in a legal battle fighting to be able to use court audio in the reporting of a highly controversial court case in the area.  The IBA interviewed General Manger Merry Ewing about the matter and what other stations can learn from the situation.

 Explain what spurred the legal action in regards to the use of audio recording in the court room.

While interviewing the lead prosecutor in the high-profile sex crimes case of Dr. John Mathew, he casually mentioned it might be quicker Alexis to request the court audio of Mathew’s sentencing hearing as opposed to the transcript, which might take weeks to transcribe. That same day, she filed a public records request with the county clerk’s office. She responded the next day, with a court order from the judge acknowledging the audio was a public record and providing a CD copy to us, but prohibiting us from broadcasting that audio or else find ourselves in criminal contempt.

What was the station’s response upon learning of the issue?

“Alexis Gray and News Director Johnathan Shelley found the court order bizarre in nature. We called resources at IRA and SPJ and shared the court order with them. Everyone agreed the court order was preposterous, and a violation of public record laws. We first attempted to set up an in-person meeting with Judge Thomas Hakes to see if we could discuss his rationale behind the court order and agree on terms for broadcasting the audio, but after Hakes did not respond to our e-mails or phone calls, we began looking at our legal options. Instead of placing our report on hold, we invited sexual assault survivors and advocates to come to the station, had them listen to the sentencing hearing audio, and then interviewed them about their reaction to Mathew’s lack of jail time for his crimes and to the judge blocking our right to broadcast the audio.”

Why do you think the recording was so valuable to the entirety of the story?

“Mathew was a prominent doctor in the small town of Huntington – he was on every medical board of every health facility in the area, a big donor to the Catholic school and church, and for a long time was the only general physician in the town. Mathew was initially arrested last year for multiple charges including rape.  In a plea deal, he pled guilty to lesser charges – two counts of felony sexual battery. He could have faced a maximum jail time of 4 years. The prosecutor asked for two. Instead, the judge sentenced Mathew to two years probation, no jail time. That sentence outraged many in our community. At the hearing, Mathew’s attorney mentioned the doctor is already working to regain his medical license.”

What steps, if any, does WPTA plan to take moving forward?

“WPTA filed a motion to intervene and reconsider. Judge Hakes granted the motion to intervene, but ruled against our motion to reconsider without holding a hearing. Hakes cited Indiana’s laws banning us from bringing our cameras into the courtroom during hearings.  However, WPTA was asking to use the courts own audio recording of the trial.   We filed an appeal.”

What do you hope other broadcasters can learn from this experience?

“We don’t think it’s common knowledge in Indiana that audio recordings exist of court proceedings. We hope this case sets a precedent for reporters across the state, to ensure they have access to court recordings and are able to broadcast them. It could be a game changer for how we cover court cases, especially for TV journalists.  WPTA, and our parent company Quincy Media, are always concerned when freedom of the press rights are restricted.”

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