Court And City Officials Prepare For Dunn Trial Media Coverage

Jan 31, 2014

A high-profile murder wrapped in racial tension and Stand Your Ground controversy will once again take center stage in Florida. This time that stage is in Duval County.

Michael Dunn’s trial starts next week in Duval County Circuit Court, and its audience will be the largest in the new courthouse’s one-and-a-half year history.

Dunn, 47, is accused of fatally shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis following an argument over loud music in November 2012. Jury selection in the case begins Monday.

The new Duval County Courthouse opened in June 2012. The trial of Michael Dunn will be the first case with national media attention to take place at the new facility.
Credit City of Jacksonville

“We’re going to be in the national spotlight,” said Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Chief Michelle Cook. “The city of Jacksonville is going to be in the national spotlight.”

Cook spoke to the press Thursday afternoon about how court and city officials plan to handle the heightened attention.

The plans have been months in the making, said Court Administrator Joe Stelma. Officials have been meeting about it since August and assembled a unified command team to manage the onslaught of public intrigue. That team is made up of four local agencies: The Clerk of Courts, the Court Administration, the Emergency Operations Center and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

“We have the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the city of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue and a lot of other agencies involved to make sure that we have everything the way it should be and that we can handle a high-profile trial,” he said.   

Stelma said the court has taken many of its cues from two other Florida cases that recently captured the country’s attention: That of Casey Anthony and more recently, George Zimmerman.

That includes the adoption of an administrative order issued in Sanford court during the Zimmerman case.

“The courts in this circuit adopted the administrative order set out by the circuit in Sanford and modified that as the administrative order to guide high profile cases in our area,” said Dave Wax, of Action News Jacksonville.

JSO Chief Michelle Cook speaks at press conference on courthouse preparations for Dunn trial.
Credit Rhema Thompson / WJCT

Wax heads the Northeast Florida Media Committee, which was set up six months ago to coordinate media coverage of the trial.

Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Donald Moran issued the modified administrative order on Dec. 19 outlining protocol for media in cases of “extraordinary public interest.”  

Under the order, all media organizations are required to apply for credentials well in advance of the trial and seating is assigned.  

Currently, about 24 media outlets have requested credentials for the trial, Wax said. Those include CNN, NBC National and Al Jazeera.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing complete comprehensive coverage of this trial from gavel to gavel and make sure that we’re showing the entire process,” he said.

And that is easier said than done in a courthouse where rooms are not designed for live coverage.

“We had to find out what courtroom it was in and wire it for television,” Wax said. “And that took a heck of a cooperated effort.”

Members of the public hoping to get an up-close view of the trial must also apply for credentials at the Prime Osborn Center between 6 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. starting Friday. Each application will undergo a background check and then be entered into a lottery pool for selection, according to Sheriff’s Office Chief Cook. Cook said it is unclear just how many seats will be available to the public.

For those in court administration, it is a delicate balance between public access, fairness and security.
     
“We’re trying to make this, the court, the media, the public work together, to make sure that we can do this in a way that’s professional,” Stelma said. “This is kind of new for us as far as the new courthouse is concerned. Layout is a little different from the other courthouse and so we think we have everything together.”

Applications and more information is available at MichaelDunnTrial.com.

You can follow Rhema Thomopson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.