Thursday, December 11, 2008

Freedom of the Press vs. Sense of Decency

by Kelly Siegler

A sentence of death was recently imposed by a Wharton County jury against defendant James Garrett Freeman for the capital murder of Texas Game Warden Justin Hurst.

Jury selection began on September 8, testimony on October 20, and Freeman was sentenced on November 7, 2008. The most compelling and gripping evidence included the in-car video footage of the defendant getting out of his pick-up immediately after an hour and a half chase down the back roads of Wharton County.

The video showed him emptying 11 rounds of his Glock semi-automatic weapon and then retrieving his AK-47 and firing both at six different police cars. The clip ends when Freeman shoots out the camera in a deputy's car.

Because so many law enforcement officers were involved in the chase and gunfight, there were seven separate in-car videos from different vantage points offered before the jury. One of those videos is the one described above. Another video depicts the tragic death of Warden Hurst when he was shot by the defendant with his AK-47.

The point of discussion has to do with the fact that the video depicting James Garrett Freeman (pictured right) firing his weapons was posted on YouTube within a week or so after the trial concluded. I learned of this when I got a phone call from Freeman's lead defense attorney, a well-respected attorney from here in Texas, Stanley Schneider. I do not know how the posting of the video on YouTube came to Stanley's attention. I do know that we made a point of notifying Justin's family and his fellow Texas Parks and Wildlife "family" of its posting immediately.

They were upset. They were angry. Do you blame them?

But were they surprised? For the most part, not really.

And THAT surprised me. Maybe because I'm still proud of myself for being able to e-mail in this tech-savvy day and age. Maybe because I have looked at something on YouTube a grand total of two times with this being one of them. Admittedly, I am way "behind the times."

All of that is beside the point. As is asking ourselves the question regarding how a piece of evidence in a public trial could get posted on YouTube so quickly. The link is Doesn't really matter and we'll never know for sure.

The question that SHOULD be asked is . . . How will it make Justin's loved ones and friends feel when they see such a clip on the World Wide Web?

To you the "post-er": Did you think about that? Did it ever cross your mind? Did you contemplate the idea that Justin's wife and mother and father would have to deal with seeing that clip for years? That his now infant son would also be faced with the same tragic situation years from now?

From Stanley Schneider's point of view and that of Freeman and his family: Did you appreciate the effect of the posting from an appellate perspective?

In this media-hungry world, in this day of non-stop 24-hour "breaking" news, should we be surprised? Probably not.

Might we still hope that there exists some remnant of integrity and sense of decency when it comes to writing or posting whatever piques our interest? We can only wish.

I wouldn't hold my breath.


Levi said...

Was Youtube contacted that the video was up? I think that if the victims' family complained, Youtube would take it down.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Siegler,
First let me congratulate you on doing such a fine job successfully prosecuting this case.
The media's callousness in the name of news has desensitized our culture beyond belief. Shock value is king and reigning fear on the viewers requires more and more violence today then ever before. The shooting death of a real human being has been reduced to video game status......ramifications be damned. You are a shining light in a world of darkness....Thank you.

Anonymous said...


As I told you before we started trial, I did everything I could to keep the videos private. I did not want Warden Hurst's son to watch the video of his father being shot and hearing him die on the Internet or on television.

As I repeatedly told the Wharton County District Attorney, the only way to keep the videos private was to allow Garrett to accept the plea offer of life without parole that was withdrawn before you got on the case. But even though Garrett was offered life without parole and initially rejected the offer, when he was ready to accept it, about 90 days prior to trial, life without parole was not available. I still wonder what evidence changed from December 1, 2007 until the day that we began trial that made the case warrant a death sentence. But that is a debate for another day. The publication of the videos on the Internet will not impact the appeal since the videos are part of the record. We will have to overcome the videos to save Garrett's life.

How did they get on the Internet? After the trial, the local newspapers immediately got copies of the videos and raced each other to post them on their websites where you can find them today. Remember, the record is public.


Pat Brown said...

I actually have to say, from a nonfamily viewpoint and from the mother of a peace officer, I rather like seeing videos like this out there. The public has a very poor understanding of the dangers law enforcement must suffer on a daily basis. Where my daughter works, Prince George's County, Maryland, the police department has a poor reputation and have often been accused of police brutality and dangerous car chases. What most residents never understand is the level of violence and audacity expressed by the criminal community in PG. My ride-alongs with my daughter have shown me why the police must be involved in high speed chases (serious problem with carjacking that then evolve into a string of store and gas station robberies on the way to dump the vehicle in DC) and why the police must be tough or they will suffer the consequences on the job.

By seeing what the officer sees and by seeing what happends to the officer in the commission of our duties, the cruiser camera can help the public understand what law enforcement is dealing with and how quickly criminals can kill you. Sometimes reading about an officer killed does have much affect on the public; seeing it might change their hearts toward law enforcment.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

As a resident of Prince George's County (not PG) I can certainly say that we have some areas that are very challenging for the county police. However, this county is very large, and there are many good communities in the county as well. I don't want the readers of WICI to think the whole county is a wasteland of criminal activity. I am wondering if your ride a longs were in the areas closest to the District of Columbia?

Pat Brown said...

::laughs:: Good point!

I live in PG as well, close to the University of Maryland and, as you say, not all of PG is a disaster. Yes, my daughter worked the worst district and, yes, near the DC line - DC extended, as some would call it. I want to add that within even the worst areas, most people are law abiding folks, but there just are enough criminals to make their lives totally miserable. Take for example the carjackings. First, someone in that district gets a gun pointed at them, maybe injured or shot, and their car is stolen. This is an innocent victim. Then the carjacker holds up three gas stations terrifying and possibly injuring a dozen people. Then the car is dumped in DC. A good portion of people in these areas support a tough police force and a smaller group do not (because they align themselves with the criminal population. Of course, when something goes down and the police are accused of brutality, you can be sure this group of thugs and thug lovers are in front of the television cameras talking about how horrible the police are.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't see anything wrong with posting material online that was made public as evidence at trial. Once it's presented to the jury it's public information. There's simply no justification, legal or otherwise, for suppressing it or telling anyone in the media (either MSM or grassroots) they cannot reproduce it. FTM, like Pat, I see a positive benefit from wider dissemination in many if not most cases.

Put the blame where it lies: If prosecutors believed it would be harmful for that material to be disseminated publicly, it shouldn't have been presented as evidence in open court. If the greater good was served by making the material public, then fine - that's the call the prosecutor is paid to make.

Evidence submitted at trial always has been and should remain public for a variety of good government accountability reasons - secret trials and evidence are anathema to democracy.