In the midst of the Keith Davis Jr. trial, Judge Alfred Nance ordered that members in the gallery had to cease taking notes on the court proceedings.
The order came after a bench conference with the state's attorney and defense attorney following the recess for lunch on Thursday, May 11. Before the jury was brought in, Nance admonished the observers of the trial, alluding to social media posts that he said could ruin the case.
Soon after he gave the order, he pointed toward various sections of the gallery and angrily asked "Understand?!"
City Paper's Brandon Weigel, who was there to cover the case then left the courtroom and went down the hall to attempt to contact lawyers at tronc (who own the Baltimore City Paper) to argue with the legality of the order. He had been taking notes.
After re-entering the courtroom, Weigel was pulled outside again by a sheriff's deputy and asked if he had a media credentials. Weigel showed he did, and the deputy asked him to sit in the section furthest to the right, away from where members of the activist group Baltimore Bloc had been sitting. tronc's lawyers did reach out to Nance's office but it isn't clear if this made the difference or not. What remained was the strange situation in which only credentialed media were allowed to take notes in open court.
At the start of the day, Weigel says, Nance mentioned that it was not normal procedure for the court to allow for so many people to take notes, but that his court had been accommodating up to a point.
Upon hearing about the notes ban, City Paper's Baynard Woods and myself, along with the Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton, entered the court room and were asked if we were media and then placed in the same section as Weigel, away from others observing the trial and allowed to take notes. This was how the remaining days of the trial played out: with only credentialed media allowed to take notes in court.
But in an open court, anybody should be able to take notes. It is not a privilege given only to reporters and, in this case, reporters from media outlets deemed worthy because of credentials. Moreover, part of the reason a group such as Baltimore Bloc is in court and taking notes and tweeting about the trial during recesses is because of their distrust of media outlets such as City Paper and the Baltimore Sun and others whose coverage of the Keith Davis Jr. saga they have criticized. And so, preventing Bloc from taking notes by limiting who can take notes also limits how this case is covered and tilts coverage toward "mainstream media."
Social media posts about the case had been in Nance's crosshairs once already. On May 10, the day after opening statements, there was a bench conference related to a tweet by Fenton, after which Nance gave instructions to the gallery that no attorney or witness is allowed to publicly comment on the case as it is ongoing. He then had the attorneys scan the room to make sure all of their witnesses were properly sequestered. Once the jury was brought in, he reiterated instructions to them that they are not to read any media about the case.
Nance, the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, has previously been reprimanded by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, a panel which oversees the court system, for his "persistently disrespectful and unprofessional" behavior toward public defender Deborah K. Levi, as Fenton reported earlier this year. A seven-day hearing on the matter is scheduled for July.
City Paper sent a request for comment to the Office of Communications and Public Affairs for the Maryland Courts that was not returned.