A coalition of Knoxville newspapers, TV stations and online news publications — including Hard Knox Wire — went to court Tuesday for the release of police bodycam videos that reportedly show the fatal shooting of a student at Austin-East Magnet High School.
The historic effort marks the first time that so many of Knoxville’s news organizations have joined together in pursuit of a single goal. The group is represented by Richard “Rick” Hollow, longtime attorney for the Tennessee Press Association and a leading expert on public records laws.
The coalition includes daily newspaper The Knoxville News Sentinel; television stations WBIR-TV 10, WVLT-TV 8 and WATE-TV 6; radio station WUOT-91.9 FM; and websites Compass, East Tennessee Enlightener and Hard Knox Wire.
The News Sentinel and the three TV stations have agreed to cover the majority of expenses but all the coalition’s members have a financial stake in the effort.
Corey Presley, news director at WBIR-TV 10, contacted the leaders of the various media organizations late last week with the idea of combining their strengths and, if necessary, going to court to help win the tapes’ release.
Hollow filed a motion to intervene Tuesday in a pending Knox County Criminal Court case filed by the administration of Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.
Mayor Kincannon is seeking an opinion from Criminal Court Judge Steve Sword that would allow the City to release the footage despite being told by District Attorney General Charme Allen that doing so could result in being held in contempt of court.
Hollow said the coalition’s members “are seeking to enter this lawsuit to support the position of the City of Knoxville and its Mayor in the interests of transparency and the accountability of the government to the people that it serves.”
“Full disclosure has been requested by a broad range of individuals, some of whom were involved in the incidents giving rise to this controversy,” Hollow continued. “It is the belief of the Knoxville media coalition that truth, accountability and transparency promote understanding and that non-disclosure fosters the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. The overriding principle in our American form of government is the accountability of the government to the people because the government is created by the people to serve the people.”
Jennifer Stambaugh, the publisher of Hard Knox Wire, said journalists have an ethical responsibility to fight for the government’s business to be open to the public.
“The news media has a moral obligation to work for transparency in government,”Stambaugh said. “The potentially irreparable harm being done to our community by refusing to release the video is a perfect example of why that moral obligation exists.”
Anthony Thompson Jr., 17, a junior at Austin-East, was shot and killed during an encounter with four Knoxville Police Department officers in a restroom at the high school on April 12.
Thompson’s death was only the most recent tragedy in a series of incidents that had already claimed the lives of four Austin-East students this semester. Resentment against KPD was already a factor in discussions over how to handle the spate of killings, with KPD taking heat both for not making enough progress in the murder investigations and for intensifying its East Knoxville patrols in an effort to deter criminals.
Thompson’s death changed the topic and the tone of the debate. It was the first incident to occur on school property or to involve police, and since the shooting occurred pressure to release the videos has built steadily. There have been numerous demonstrations and rallies, including a direct action protest Monday when approximately 40 people interrupted a County Commission session and seven of them were arrested. Police Chief Eve Thomas and three of the four officers involved in the shooting at Austin-East have also asked for the videos to be made public.
Last week, General Allen called a press conference to explain her position in detail. She said that she won’t release the videos before the TBI probe is complete and she’s had a chance to decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
“We want to determine whether or not a crime has been committed,” she said at the time. “Every single time, I will err on the side of the law over the demand of public opinion …. If someone is ultimately charged with a criminal act, they are allowed the right to due process where the case cannot be tried in the public or in the press prior to it being tried in the courtroom.”
Allen also told officials from the City of Knoxville (including the police department) they could be held in contempt of court if they release the videos without her permission, citing a 2019 court order filed in Knox County Criminal Court that strictly controls the distribution of police videos to defense attorneys.
Mayor Kincannon responded, however, by ordering the City’s law department to file a petition in Criminal Court that, if approved, will allow the public to see the footage once it’s been redacted in accordance with state laws dealing with images of minors.
“Every day the video’s not released perpetuates rumors and misinformation,” Kincannon explained. “Every day the video is not released undermines public trust. It is my first priority to get the video released. The sooner we get the video out the sooner we can begin to process and to heal.”
In the media coalition’s motion filed Tuesday, Hollow argued that Judge Steve Sword should rule the 2019 order only applies to criminal cases pending before the court. Because no charges have been filed, the Austin-East shooting is clearly beyond the court’s jurisdiction, he said.
“The intent of the City to provide a redacted copy of the videos in question which it possesses and owns is not erroneous, is not improper and most certainly is not punishable in this Court by contempt,” Hollow wrote.
“It is respectfully submitted that the Court should not seek to extend its jurisdiction and punish a non-party for criminal contempt as a result of the good faith release of a redacted copy of images recorded by body-worn cameras in the interests of transparency and accountability of the government to the citizens that it serves. The threat of criminal prosecution apparently made against the City of Knoxville and its police department does not create a basis for prosecution for criminal contempt.”
He continued: “Because of the threat of prosecution for criminal contempt that could result from any release of the requested videos, this is not an academic exercise. This is a serious issue which should be resolved by the Court interpreting the Standing Order as applying only to the parties and their attorneys to an active criminal prosecution pending before the Court.”
Hard Knox Wire’s publisher, Jennifer Stambaugh, said the coalition’s decision to intervene wasn’t made lightly. “We never want to take the side of one elected official over another elected official like this. However, this is far more than a political dispute between Mayor Kincannon and General Allen. This cuts to the heart of issues like transparency, public access to government and the ongoing national debate over deaths involving police,” she said.
“But those abstract considerations — as important as they are to our society — are nothing compared to the horror of a child dying from a police officer’s bullet while he’s at school. No matter what happened, no matter who is to blame, this was a tragedy and the community has the right to know what happened so we can at least begin to move forward.”
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on April 21, 2021