South Carolina

Courts are closed: Horry County Sheriff restricts public entry to trials, denies wrongdoing

While the Horry County Sheriff claims his department does not restrict public access to courtrooms, the practice carried out by deputies tells a different story.

“I never ever, I never ever denied public access,” Sheriff Phillip Thompson said Tuesday.

His statements came after The Sun News and other media were denied access by court security to observe and report on portions of criminal trials.

“Courts in South Carolina are open,” said Bill Rogers, president of the South Carolina Press Association.

The U.S. Constitution and the South Carolina Supreme Court protect the press’ First Amendment rights as well as a defendant’s right to a fair trial. Despite those protections, sheriff’s deputies twice in the past eight weeks have barred media from courtrooms during jury selection.

In mid-September, media members were kept in the hallway during jury selection for the Sidney Moorer trial. Despite multiple attempts by media members, court security did not allow entry and said the room was too crowded and it would create a disturbance.

As the media waited for access, other people were allowed to enter and leave the courtroom at will. The media wasn’t allowed into the courtroom until the jury for Moorer’s trial was selected. The room had an occupancy of 227 people.

Media members were allowed to watch and report the jury selection for Tammy Moorer’s trial a year earlier.

This week, a reporter with The Sun News was denied access to observe jury selection for a trial related to a double murder. The reporter entered the courtroom after it was unlocked and opened to others, but a court security officer said it was going to be crowded and the media had to wait outside.

The reporter cited to the officer a Supreme Court ruling that says a crowded room is not a good enough reason to keep the public out, but the officer insisted they must wait outside. The deputy said he would allow the reporter and photographer access when he was able.

After five minutes, The Sun News reporter had a note delivered to Judge Paul Burch, who immediately let the media in the room where the judge was on the bench and jury selection had already begun.

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Sun News file photo

Laws back open access

A handbook for judges from the South Carolina Judicial Branch notes, “public access to judicial proceedings is an important aspect of our system of justice.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has backed that idea with numerous cases supporting public access to trials.

“The right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment,” Justice Warren Burger wrote in the landmark Richmond Newspaper Inc. v. Virginia decision in the 1980s.

Taylor Smith, a lawyer for the South Carolina Press Association, said the First Amendment protects the rights of a public trial. A trial typically involves several public figures in South Carolina, such as a judge, solicitors, the police and public defenders, he added.

Rogers noted the public can’t always attend a criminal proceeding, but the press can and then report on the case.

“The fact that the public has access to trial helps assure they will be fair and completely done,” Rogers said.

The Supreme Court also found in 2010 that a crowded courtroom was not enough of a reason to close it to the public. The 2010 Presley v. Georgia case focused on a defendant’s family member who was trying to watch jury selection in a crowded courtroom. The court found barring the member violated the accused’s rights.

Horry County Sheriff Phillip E. Thompson. JASON LEE

The Supreme Court stated that trial courts must take reasonable measures to accommodate public attendance, such as reserving a row or dividing the jury panel into smaller groups.

Public access to trials isn’t absolute, Smith said. If the room is near fire capacity, it can be restricted if alternative measures aren’t available. The judge also has to state why access is being restricted.

The Sun News requested an interview with Thompson after being removed from the courtroom for the second time in eight weeks. The sheriff quickly became defensive about his department’s actions when questioned about the practice.

“We don’t want to keep anything from the public,” he said.

When asked about who decided when to restrict access, Thompson said it’s because of court security, which he takes very seriously.

In the Sidney Moorer case, he said it was held in a large courtroom, but it was also crowded.

The sheriff said he was unaware of the Presley decision by the Supreme Court, but he takes seriously his oath of office to uphold the laws and the constitution.

Thompson said they do not plan on making any changes to their practices despite being presented with the concerns.

Alex Lang is the True Crime reporter for The Sun News covering the legal system and how crime impacts local residents. He says letting residents know if they are safe is a vital role of a newspaper. Alex has covered crime in Detroit, Iowa, New York City, West Virginia and now Horry County.