Public kept out of courtroom as judge weighs evidence in South Carolina police ambush case

FLORENCE, SC (AP) — A judge closed a courtroom to the public and reporters Thursday during preliminary motions in the death penalty case of a South Carolina man accused of killing two police officers in an ambush in 2018.

South Carolina court hearings are almost always open. But lawyers for Frederick Hopkins have successfully argued that potential jurors could be exposed to information that a judge may later decide to exclude from the trial. Thursday’s hearing focused on whether certain evidence or witness statements would be allowed at trial.

“If it were released publicly before the jury was called, it would be virtually impossible for us to get a jury in Florence County. And we should try to move the trial. Which I don’t think anyone wants to do,” defense attorney Boyd Young told WPDE-TV.

District Attorney Ed Clements did not fight the motion, and Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith Jr. granted it, ordering the public and members of the media to leave the courtroom.

“It simplifies things when you have a closed courtroom, for the purposes of this hearing. But, once a jury is selected, it’s public,” Griffith said.

Previous court rulings in South Carolina have said judges can only close courtrooms for preliminary hearings if there is a substantial likelihood that the defendant’s right to a fair trial will be affected, if it can be proven that closing the courtroom will prevent this from happening, and there are no other alternatives.

In other high-profile cases, judges ruled that the prior publicity was so great that any additional attention from pre-trial proceedings would not change matters. In the trial of Alex Murdaugh earlier this year, the courtroom was not closed for pre-trial evidentiary hearings despite national attention.

In another highly unusual step, all motions and records of the case have been kept off the South Carolina Public Court Records site,

Hopkins, 78, faces two murder charges and several other counts. Authorities said he shot from a second-story window at Florence County deputies he knew were coming to his home in October 2018. They were trying to execute a search warrant in a sex abuse case where his son would later plead guilty.

Hopkins continued to fire on Florence city police who were trying to rescue the injured deputies, investigators said.

Florence police sergeant. Terrence Carraway died the day of the shooting, and Florence County Sheriff’s Investigator Farrah Turner was injured and died several weeks later. Five other officers were injured.

Also on Thursday, the prosecution said it wanted to start the trial in mid-February.

Hopkins attended the hearing in a wheelchair and used a device to better hear court proceedings. It took several minutes to realize that the judge had not turned on his microphone.

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