A Muskogee County judge ruled on Friday that portions of the video captured by body cameras worn by Muskogee police at a homicide scene must be made public in accordance with the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
The body cam video was captured during the early morning hours of Feb. 2, when six people were killed inside a southeast Muskogee residence. Prosecutors allege Jarron Deajon Pridgeon, 25, shot and killed his brother and five children ranging in age from age 2 to 9 years.
District Judge Bret Smith acknowledged the competing interests at play — the prejudicial impact it could have on an accused murderer or his accusers and the public's right to accurate information — and attempted to serve both with his decision. Smith ordered the release body cam video he believed furthered the ORA's objectives: government transparency.
"I want everybody to know, we have two strong competing interests here and, of course, the goal is to serve both of those," Smith said. "I am concerned with the prejudicial impact on the defendant's right to a fair trial ..., but I do think we have to respect the public's interest as they have become the watchdog or the guardian over what we do."
Prosecutors charged Pridgeon with shooting Brittany Anderson, the mother of those children, with the intent to kill her. He also faces a charge as an alleged felon in possession of a firearm while serving probation.
District Attorney Orvil Loge filed a motion just days after the Feb. 2 homicides, asking the court to block public access to the recordings of the 911 calls and body cam videos. Loge said the content of the video images captured by body cameras worn by police who responded to the call “are graphic and disturbing, and likely would compromise an ongoing criminal investigation, prosecution, and Pridgeon’s right to a fair trial."
The Muskogee Phoenix challenged efforts to keep those recordings — considered by state law to be public records available for inspection upon request — from being disclosed to the public. KatieBeth Gardner, who represented the Phoenix as part of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Local Legal Initiative in Oklahoma, secured the release of the recording of the 911 call and partial release of the body cam video.
"There is really no basis for the wholesale blocking of this body camera footage under the Open Records Act because it is a public record," Gardner said. "There are no specific mechanisms that would block the release of a public record because it might be used as evidence in a criminal case."
Gardner said courts have recognized the public interest "is best served" when reporters are able to rely "on access to primary sources of information such as body camera footage." She said courts have determined news coverage of "is not presumptively prejudicial" to a criminal defendant.
Gretchen Mosley, a lawyer with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System who represents Pridgeon, also objected to the release of the body camera footage. She said if the court ordered the release of the video, portions that depict an "intense, emotional response to the horrors that lie within" should be redacted if that type of footage exists.
Trying to strike a balance between those interests, Smith said body cam video captured by police outside the southeast Muskogee residence up to and including Pridgeon's arrest should be released. He instructed City Attorney Matthew Beese to present to the court within 10 days a compilation video that satisfies the criterion identified by the court, which will review the compilation and approve its release.
Loge based his request for the court order preventing the release of the 911 calls and police body cam video on an exemption to Oklahoma’s Open Records Act. The exemption was included in amendments approved by lawmakers during the 2015 legislative session.
The law requires the release of those items within 10 days following a defendant’s formal arraignment or initial appearance. Delays may be requested for up to six months, but the cumulative length of delays “shall not add up to more than 18 months.”