Pointing to lessons learned from the livestreaming of a gruesome double homicide trial in January, a Dane County judge on Thursday prohibited news organizations from livestreaming what is likely to be another gruesome double homicide trial beginning next week.
And in a highly unusual move, Dane County Circuit Judge Ellen Berz prohibited any video or audio recording of the trial at all — something neither defense nor prosecution attorneys had requested.
Berz’s 26-page order references case law and various local, state and federal courthouse rules giving her the power to restrict media coverage in arguing that a livestream of the trial of 20-year-old Khari Sanford could hurt his ability to get a fair trial while subjecting witnesses and attorneys to the kind of online harassment seen in the earlier case.
The “running public commentaries” that aired with the livestream of the January trial of Chandler Halderson “were more akin to the trash talk one would expect at a World Wrestling Federation bout than at a solemn, dignified courtroom trial,” she writes.
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Halderson, 24, was convicted after a nine-day trial of killing and dismembering his parents, then trying to burn their body parts in the family fireplace before dumping them around southern Wisconsin. Sanford has been charged with the execution-style slaying of his former girlfriend’s parents in March 2020.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said Berz’s decision “cuts against decades of practice and precedent.” His group had joined local broadcasters and their industry groups in petitioning the court to allow a livestream of Sanford’s trial.
“The public has a right to see what happens in our court system, including how the elected judge in this case conducts herself,” Lueders said. “Her decision is openly hostile to the press and has the feel of being retributive against the media outlets that dared to question her bizarre decision to limit their ability to show more than 10 seconds of a prior court proceeding.”
Dan Shelley, executive director and chief operating officer for the Radio Television Digital News Association, called Berz’s decision “draconian,” but said his group and the other petitioners had not yet decided whether they will appeal.
Berz’s decision “will harm not only the parties involved but the general public, which has a legitimate need to see and hear what happens in the courtroom,” he said. “It is only through full transparency that justice can truly be served.”
Cameras and video and audio recording equipment have long been allowed at the Dane County Courthouse, where many courtrooms have separate media rooms outfitted with large windows looking onto the courtrooms and audio links so that reporters can hear what the judge, attorneys, witnesses and others are saying. Halderson’s case, though, is believed to be the first that was livestreamed in the county, both by local television stations and national cable players Court TV and the Law & Crime Network.
Sanford’s attorneys argued in March that livestreaming their client’s trial could taint the jury, affect witness testimony and ultimately deprive Sanford of a fair trial. Prosecutors joined the effort, saying a livestream could allow sequestered but reluctant witnesses to see testimony prior to taking the stand themselves, as well as lead to the harassment of people involved in the trial and undermine the “dignity of the proceedings.”
Prior to a hearing in the case on April 7, Berz issued an order prohibiting broadcasters from livestreaming that hearing or from using more than 10 seconds of it in any broadcast. She also ordered that any other recorded material from the hearing be deleted within 24 hours and that none of the material from the hearing be shared with any other organization or person.
In response, the broadcasters and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council argued in an April 15 court filing that while livestreaming is too recent to have been addressed in rules on how cameras are used in the courtroom, case law and the state and federal constitutions have long protected news media’s ability to gather images and audio of trial proceedings.
Restrictions on such coverage have been “only to the extent necessary to address particular concerns,” such as the “number of cameras in the courtroom, ‘distracting light or sound’ from cameras, the location of camera equipment (and) the audio pickup of confidential conversations,” the media coalition wrote.
“The Supreme Court has held that the public needs to see justice unfold in order to both trust the process and experience a necessary catharsis ... and the press with its tools of mass communication is an obvious proxy for the people,” they said.
Berz rejected the notion that banning livestreaming was akin to banning access to public courts, calling it a “straw man created by (the media coalition) out of whole cloth.”
“Neither the plaintiff, the defendant nor this court have ever suggested limiting the media’s access to the courtroom,” she wrote. “As with print media, the courtroom is open to television media. As with print media, reporters from television media may listen and watch the proceedings. As with print media, reporters from television media may report trial information to the public.”
Prosecutors believe Sanford and co-defendant Ali’jah Larrue, also 20, kidnapped Dr. Beth Potter, 52, and her husband, Robin Carre, 57, from their Near West Side Madison home in late March 2020, then took them to the UW Arboretum, where Sanford shot them both.
Sanford had been dating one of the couple’s three children, Miriam Potter Carre, and at the time was living with Potter Carre at an Airbnb rented for the couple by the victims and using a minivan the victims had lent their daughter, according to a criminal complaint in the case. Prosecutors allege Sanford and Potter Carre were not getting along with Potter Carre’s parents.
Larrue pleaded guilty to lesser felony murder charges in May 2021 and is expected to testify at Sanford’s trial, which is scheduled to begin Monday and last two weeks.
Berz’s order also bans smartphones from the courtroom and media room, and still photography of jurors, lay witnesses, people in the courtroom gallery and trial exhibits.