Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen speaks during a hearing Thursday morning at the Beaufort County Courthouse to discuss the restraining order preventing the release of the dashboard video from the stolen firetruck.(Photo: Sarah Welliver)
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A circuit court judge ruled Thursday that video from the dashboard of a stolen Port Royal firetruck won't be released until a jury is selected in the murder trial of the man accused of running over a pedestrian with the truck.
After a 90-minute hearing at the Beaufort County Courthouse, Judge Carmen Mullen issued a permanent restraining order barring county law enforcement agencies, fire departments, the S.C. Highway Patrol and the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office from releasing video from the firetruck or from any police cars that responded to the Feb. 24 incident.
The judge, who has viewed the video, repeatedly described it as "shocking," saying it not only showed the firetruck colliding with other vehicles on Ribaut Road in Beaufort but also hitting the pedestrian.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, WCBD in Charleston, The (Charleston) Post and Courier, and WSAV in Savannah filed Freedom of Information Act requests earlier this month seeking access to the tape.
Carl Muller, a Greenville attorney representing the Packet and Gazette, as well as the two television stations, argued the state's FOIA law requires the government to produce the footage.
"Under FOIA, we are entitled to a video created with the use of taxpayers' money on a vehicle purchased by taxpayers' money that is operated by people whose salary ... is paid for using taxpayers' money," Muller said. "This video simply shows an event that occurred in public. It's not anyone's opinion of what happened. It is of something that occurred in full view of many, many people."
Mullen played an active role in Thursday's hearing, peppering lawyers with questions and pressing witnesses for their opinions about what effect the release of the video would have on the case.
Sara Johnson Borton, publisher of the Packet and Gazette, said if the video were made available, she would weigh carefully the decision to publish parts or all of the footage, keeping in mind the family of the deceased pedestrian and the right of the accused to a fair trial.
WCBD news director Scott Flannigan testified that access to the footage was necessary in order for the media to maintain its role as a government watchdog.
"We want to see if the video warrants further investigation into how these public agencies conduct business everyday," Flannigan said. "We strive for accountability ... for our community, and we want to know where did our system go wrong. We want to know where the accountability for this tragedy lies ... and we want to be given the opportunity to ask the tough questions."
Mullen ultimately sided with the opponents of releasing the video -- 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone; attorney Corey Fleming of Beaufort, who is representing Marine Pvt. Kalvin Hunt, 26, the defendant; and Beaufort attorney Sammy Svalina, attorney for the brother of the pedestrian hit by the firetruck.
The judge said releasing the tape would make it extremely difficult to empanel an impartial jury in Beaufort or elsewhere in South Carolina.
"The pre-trial publicity in this case has been very extensive," Mullen said. "I believe that the release of this video would only make it that much worse. The only way I know to stop it is ... to issue a permanent restraining order and make sure that the jury sees it when the rest of the world sees it."
"I don't think the public has a need to see it ... and anyone who wants to see it is sick -- truly," Mullen added. "The video is disturbing, and that is putting it lightly."
Stone said withholding the video is the only way to protect Hunt's right to a fair trial.
"This is an issue of whether to release a piece of evidence that shows the entire case," Stone said. "If this video is released today, it goes viral and is on every Internet site by tonight. The only way that we would be able to get a change of venue would be to try the case in a county that has no Internet access or news outlets."
Fleming, Hunt's attorney, told the judge he also was concerned about the release of the video.
"I've tried a death penalty case in this courtroom ... and the publicity in that case was a thumbnail of what it's been in this case," Fleming said. "And we were still weeding out jurors left and right. I do not want this video disseminated until my client receives a fair trial."
Fleming also said that Hunt is suffering from "significant psychological problems" and has been transferred from the Beaufort County Detention Center to a psychiatric hospital in Columbia.
Hunt had been in the Beaufort County Detention Center jail since waiving his right to a bond hearing on the murder charge last week.
He is charged with murder for the death of the pedestrian, Justin Miller, 28, of Port Royal, and 10 other offenses related to the theft of the firetruck and six wrecks on Ribaut Road.
Mullen's ruling Thursday converted the temporary restraining order she issued March 2 into a permanent one that will be effective until a jury is seated.
Muller said last week that Mullen issued the temporary restraining order without providing adequate notice to the press and public -- comments Mullen sharply chastised him for making.
"(State judicial rules) allow me to issue a temporary restraining order without notice and you know that," Mullen said. "Is this you misleading the readers of this newspaper or were you misquoted?"
Mullen also criticized Muller for telling the press he requested Thursday's hearing when Mullen had actually scheduled the hearing upon issuing the temporary restraining order earlier this month.
Muller said he was quoted accurately and apologized.
The hearing also was attended by Justin Miller's family, who declined to speak to reporters.
Beaufort attorney Sammy Svalina, who is representing Miller's brother Christopher, said the family did not want to relive the fatal crash and also asked Mullen to impose a permanent restraining order preventing the video's release.
"(Christopher Miller) has already experienced this once and does not want it to go viral," Svalina said.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.
- Judge bars release of dashboard video from deadly firetruck theft, March 10, 2012
- A week after fatal crash, shock wearing off, officials reviewing incident, March 3, 2012
- Man accused of stealing Port Royal firetruck waives right to bond hearing, March 2, 2012
- Port Royal firetruck-theft suspect convicted of assault last April by court martial, March 1, 2012
- Man accused of joyride in stolen Port Royal firetruck hit with murder charge, Feb. 28, 2012