Editorial: With lives at stake, the Tensing trial demands openness

Editorial: With lives at stake, the Tensing trial demands openness
Posted at 11:40 AM, Jun 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-06 15:05:33-04

When the judge in the Ray Tensing trial went on a mini-rant about “the media” on Friday, it was a little surprising.

Surprising, not just because of Judge Leslie Ghiz’ display of grumpiness (“I’m at the end of my rope with the media,” she fretted) but because we – the media, the judge and the rest of the community – all want the same thing in the end – a fair trial.

“The point is, everybody deserves a fair trial,” Ghiz said.

We agree.

Judge Leslie Ghiz

And that’s why WCPO and the other major media organizations in town are fighting the judge’s moves to restrict access to important information. We believe it will help ensure that Ray Tensing gets a fair trial and shore up public confidence in justice in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

The rest of 27-year-old Tensing’s life is at stake. He is charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter. He could face life in prison if the jury finds him guilty. One life has already been lost, that of Samuel Dubose, who was shot and killed July 19, 2015 during an encounter with Tensing, who was then a University of Cincinnati police officer.

Surrounding these life-and-death matters are issues of race (Dubose was black, Tensing is white), police use of force, police training, and police-community relations. Weighted with these heavy issues, the trial is being closely watched in this community and elsewhere.

All reasons why it needs to be as transparent as possible.

WCPO, The Enquirer and the other local TV stations requested full access to the completed questionnaires that potential jurors must fill out. The questionnaires are key tools in how the lawyers will select the people who will decide Tensing’s fate.

Questioning potential jurors about their backgrounds and opinions is something that takes place in open court. In this trial, it’s also being done through a lengthy questionnaire -- 178 questions covering everything from race to guns to opinions about Black Lives Matter. Those questions and the jurors’ answers need to be open to the public, just as if they were done in open court.

The public needs to be confident that a fair trial was conducted and that a just verdict was reached. That’s never more important than in a trial like this one, fraught with so much emotion and scrutiny.

Keeping the juror information accessible to the public will boost confidence in the trial’s outcome and in our system of justice.

Judge Ghiz suggested that media interest in opening up access was merely “to sell papers and have people click their websites.”  Aside from being demeaning, her assessment is simply not true.

This trial is so high-profile that viewers and readers will pay attention whether the media has access to the juror information or not. Our interest is in upholding the law and making sure our local courts are accountable to the public. Lives are in the balance and precedent can be set for future trials.

State and federal law generally favors openness and transparency in court proceedings and rightly so.

With our court filings, we and other local media are not seeking any changes to state statutes. We asked a higher court to clarify and uphold the law, which it did. It ruled in favor of openness, saying that Ghiz’ initial decision to keep the juror profiles hidden was “contrary to law.”

All these questions could have been resolved months ago. But Judge Ghiz chose to wait until now to address them, which lent a frenzied atmosphere to the first few days of the proceedings. It wasn't quite the "circus" that defense attorney Stew Mathews complained about, but things could have started on a calmer note.  

Still, these questions needed to be settled before the jury is chosen and arguments begin. When they are settled in favor of access, transparency and openness, then the media, the court, the community and the defendant will all get what they want – a fair and just trial.