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Stillman College journalism professor Stephen Flanagan Jackson in front of the federal courthouse.
AP photo by Rob Carr
Stillman College journalism professor Stephen Flanagan Jackson in front of the federal courthouse.

Prof wants death allegations unsealed

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — An attorney for a journalism professor asked a federal appeals
court Thursday to allow the public access to thousands of pages of documents filed
in a civil case accusing a Birmingham coal company of involvement in the killings of union mine leaders in Colombia.

But an attorney for Drummond Coal Co. told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that unsealing the documents could prejudice a jury when the case goes to trial.

Two of the three judges indicated in remarks that it would probably not influence potential jurors if the documents are unsealed, as sought by Stillman College professor Stephen Flanagan Jackson, who is associate editor and reporter for the online
newspaper LatinAmerican Post.com.

He intervened in the case, a civil lawsuit filed in federal court in Birmingham that accuses Drummond of involvement in the killing of three workers at a Drummond mine in Colombia.

Union hit

One of the documents sealed is a sworn statement from a Colombian citizen who says he saw a former Drummond official pay hit men $200,000 to kill union leaders.

The statement was the subject of a Miami Herald story before it was sealed by U.S. District Judge Karon O. Bowdre, who turned down Jackson's request to unseal the material.

An attorney for Drummond, Paul Enzinna, argued that the records are not relevant to the case and would prejudice a jury if made public.

"The problem is that this stretches the public's right to access beyond the breaking point," Enzinna told the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel.

A trial has tentatively been scheduled for later this year. Jackson's attorney, Barry Ragsdale, told the judges that the public has the right to know what is going on in such an important case.

"The public's access to
the court records is essential to the public's understanding of this case," Ragsdale
said.

Public interest

The judges questioned Enzinna about how the unsealing of the court documents would prejudice members of a future jury, pointing out that the case has received little publicity in Alabama.

"It's hard to imagine that by lifting the seal, you aren't going to get a fair trial," Judge Ed Carnes of Montgomery told Enzinna.

"I don't think the public pays that much attention to news stories."

Judge Bill Pryor of Birmingham, a former Alabama attorney general, said people in the Birmingham area have other issues on their minds, such as the hiring of new University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and the latest developments in the television show "American Idol."

The judges also heard arguments from attorney Leo Cunningham asking them to reverse a ruling by Bowdre that found four plaintiff's attorneys in the case in contempt of court for filing a document Jackson seeks to unseal.

Details

Jackson, who has written extensively about the case for LatinAmericanPost.com, said he's concerned that if the case gets dismissed before coming to trial the public may never know the details behind the killing of the miners in Colombia.

"It's like we're saying 'lets sweep this under the rug,' " said Jackson, who attended Thursday's hearing.

The third member on the panel who heard arguments is Judge Joseph Jerome Farris of Seattle.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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