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Judge cites Internet age, orders release of more evidence in Trayvon Martin shooting

SANFORD, Fla. -- It was once Florida’s tourism motto: “The rules are different here.”

John E. Polk Correctional Facility / Reuters file

George Zimmerman, shown in a handout booking photo.

And that is now once again holding true as this state’s permissive public records laws are clarified by Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester.

In the highly charged second-degree murder case against George Zimmerman, accused of shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, evidence that would ordinarily remain sealed from public view in many other states will soon be revealed for any and all to see. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty. Police in Sanford say he told officers on the night of the shooting that he acted in self-defense.

Florida’s public records laws date to 1967, and while they’ve stood the test of time through a series of high-profile cases, including the trials of serial killer Ted Bundy, serial killer Danny Rolling and accused baby killer Casey Anthony – who was acquitted on all charges – Lester says 2012 is a different time.

“The majority of case law … predates the rise of the blogosphere, where the Internet has made news and opinion instantly available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he writes.   

Kerry Sanders is an NBC News correspondent based in Florida; click here to follow him on Twitter. Jamie Novogrod is an NBC News producer; he's also on Twitter.

“Until recently, a change of venue would be sufficient to ensure that an impartial jury could be selected because the local print and television media would primarily focus on local news.” 
So what new evidence can the public expect to see? 

  • Zimmerman spoke to law enforcement and those conversations, interrogations and interviews were likely recorded.  While prosecutors claim they’re confessions, the defense says they are not.  Soon, you’ll be able to read transcripts, and perhaps listen, too, and draw your own conclusions. 
  • Statement by Witness No. 9. Sources tell NBC News Witness No. 9 made some highly inflammatory claims about Zimmerman. They’re the type of claims, say those familiar with the recording, that may be off-topic but are an assault on Zimmerman’s character. For Zimmerman’s defense team, this witness may offer little in the courtroom, but sources familiar with the statements say they could be devastating in the court of public opinion. 
  • Zimmerman was given a “stress test” by Sanford police the night of the shooting. Sources tell NBC News he passed the test. Prosecutors did not want the test released because they say the science is suspect. While it’s unclear whether the test would be acceptable in a court of law, it’s about to become public, again for any and all to judge relevant or worthless.
  • All the crime scene photos, other than those showing Martin’s body, will become public. That again will allow amateur sleuths to piece together theories of the crime and, as the judge notes, publish any and all opinions and conclusions on the Internet.

Defense Attorney Mark O’Mara said at a recent hearing the problem with making all of these records public is “we can’t control what the media chooses to publish.”

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Court docs: Trayvon Martin shooting 'ultimately avoidable by Zimmerman'

The lawmakers who long ago established Florida’s public records laws argued, in part, that the purpose of opening all files was to let anyone choose what they find important. Transparency, they argued, also holds everyone accountable, including the prosecutor, who by nature of the job has an established authority and presumed unassailable integrity.

But in an evolving Internet-driven world, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey believes it’s time for change. She says she’s going to take the public records debate to the Florida Legislature in 2013. She says she wants to change the laws established 45 years ago because she says lawmakers then could not have predicted the impact of the Internet today on our justice system.

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