February 04, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A judge's decision to seal all of the trial evidence used to convict two former Vanderbilt University football players of rape is unusual and overly broad, according to advocates for open records and the media.

Judge Monte Watkins issued the order last week without any explanation, other than the assertion that it was ''reasonable and appropriate'' to do so after the jury convicted Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey of raping an unconscious female student who had no memory of the crime. Two other former players are also charged in the case but their trial date has not been set.

Key to the convictions were graphic photos and videos of the assault taken and shared on cellphones. Before the trial, Watkins had placed this evidence under a protective order along with identifying information about the victim. Despite the order, surveillance video from the dormitory on the night of the rape - showing the unconscious woman being carried down a hallway and dragged out of an elevator - was leaked to the television program ''20/20,'' which aired it Friday.

The victim was not identified. Her face and body were blurred and her speech, during recorded testimony and police questioning, was altered. The Associated Press also generally doesn't identify victims of sexual assault.

Frank Gibson, the public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, said he understands the concern for protecting the victim but the judge needs to balance the victim's rights with the public's right to scrutinize the justice system. In this case, it is not clear that the balancing act took place, he said.

''Sealing all evidence seems to be too broad without some explanation,'' he said. ''There could be a good reason, but we just don't know at this point.''

Watkins, through a clerk, declined to comment on his order. Tom Thurman, the deputy attorney general who prosecuted the case, said ''the judge has an obligation to protect the two co-defendants' right to a fair trial.''

Attorney Robb Harvey represents a coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, suing for access to some of the police records in the case, which overlap with the sealed court records.

Harvey said he was not aware of any other case where such a broad seal of all evidence was issued after the trial.

''No hearing was conducted; no proof was presented; and no less restrictive measures were considered,'' he said in an email.

Bob Steele, an expert on journalism ethics, said the courts, law enforcement and the press have different missions and obligations that are sometimes conflicting.

In a case like the rape at Vanderbilt, reporters will look at how police investigators, prosecutors and judges handled it. Those are profoundly important issues, Steele said, but they can't be examined without access to records.

''It's appropriate for journalists to seek information to tell the truth as best as possible about significant issues,'' he said. ''News organizations do have a responsibility to push back when they believe a judge is using a broad brush or overstepping.''

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