WASHINGTON – News organizations praised a judge's decision Monday to release tapes of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's grand jury testimony, saying it would open a window into court proceedings.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said he would make the eight-hour recordings public even though he was worried that jurors could be influenced by outside media buzz.
Federal law supports the public release of evidence presented to a jury. But judges in high-profile cases occasionally have released only written transcripts or have delayed public disclosure until the trial's end.
"This is a victory for the public's right to know," said Karen Magnuson, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and editor of the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.
"Audio adds a layer of information that citizens can use to become more informed about the way government operates," she said.
Walton's ruling is a bit of a rarity in a federal court system that generally bans tape recorders and cameras in the courtroom. In the Libby trial, the impact also could be magnified due to the growing influence of Internet news.
The tapes took up part of Monday and are expected to run through Tuesday, as well, with public release afterward.
"This is a blogger's dream," said Jim Angle, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, who has been covering the trial and plans to use at least some audio snippets in his reports. "What was previously secret grand jury testimony, you now get a public window into the process."
"You get to hear over and over remarks on which he was indicted and you get to make your own judgment," he said.
Other major networks, including ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, said they would go through the audiotapes and determine how much to broadcast.
"Federal courts are difficult and tricky things to cover. It's one area where the electronic media is really not as able to cover as well as print media," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "To be able to have some access to these electronic recordings will make our coverage more realistic."
C-SPAN will also review the recordings and anticipates they may be used on television, radio and its Internet site, said spokeswoman Jennifer Moire.
Libby is charged with perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI in an indictment that focuses in part on his statements to a federal grand jury investigating the leak of the CIA identity of Valerie Plame.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald successfully fought to enter the tapes into evidence and planned to play about eight hours of Libby's closed-door testimony.
Although quotes from Libby's testimony would be widely distributed anyway by reporters who are covering the trial, his lawyers had argued that the audio was too sensitive to be released until the trial ended.
Nathan Siegel, an attorney representing The Associated Press and more than a dozen other news organizations, contended that Libby's own words were far less prejudicial than evidence released in other cases, including 911 calls from inside the World Trade Center, FBI tapes in the Abscam investigation and mob wiretap tapes.
In a telephone interview, Siegel said Walton's ruling could have significant impact for future cases at a time when audio and videotaping of statements for trial are becoming more common.
"It certainly helps the broadcast media," he said. "But it helps other outlets, too, now that you've got newspaper Web sites, with opportunities for greater use of audio and video."
In the tapes, Libby discusses conversations he had regarding Plame, whose identity was leaked to reporters in 2003.
Jane Kirtley, a media ethics professor at the University of Minnesota, said Walton's decision pointed to a "new generation of judges more comfortable" with removing roadblocks to public access to trial evidence.
As an example, Kirtley noted that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown some flexibility by releasing audio recordings of its own arguments in high-profile cases.
While there could be distortion of news accounts of the grand jury tapes, the same could be said of transcripts of grand jury proceedings that are routinely released during trials, she said.