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TV Station Wants Access to Attorney Hearing

(CN) - The North Carolina State Bar's disciplinary body is wrongly preventing the news media from recording audio and video at the hearing of a high-profile attorney accused of misconduct, a Raleigh television station claims.

Christine Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, is a prominent advocate for inmates wrongly convicted of crimes. However, the state bar claims she went too far when she violated a woman's privacy rights to help one of her clients.

That client, Joseph Sledge, served almost 40 years in prison for a double murder he didn't commit before he was exonerated and released in January 2015.

The state bar claims that prior to Sledge's release, Mumma visited the family of a possible alternative suspect and tried to convince them to provide a DNA sample. When they would not, she told a water bottle from the home of the suspect's sister and later had it tested for DNA.

Mumma has claimed that she didn't immediately realize the water bottle she left the house with wasn't hers. But at the beginning of a three-day disciplinary hearing, Leanor Hodge, an attorney for the state bar, said there was no excuse for Mumma to keep the bottle and then have a DNA test conducted on it.

"To suggest that the defendant didn't know her conduct was wrong borders on the absurd," Hodges said.

This week, a three-person disciplinary panel is hearing testimony that will determine whether Mumma violated the bar's rules of professional conduct.

The only problem, according to a complaint filed by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., is that the public is being shut out of seeing and hearing any of the proceedings.

In a complaint filed in the Wake County Superior Court, Capitol Broadcasting Company, the owner of WRAL, says that on Jan. 6, the station contacted the discipline panel's chairman, attorney and mediator Fred Morelock, and requested access to broadcast audio and video from the hearing.

Morelock responded with a short note that said while he knew the case "has some public interest ... I feel that the hearing will benefit from the absence of live coverage."

"Only still (and quiet) photography will be allowed," he said.

The station sought clarification, but Morelock held firm, telling an attorney for the station "that he would not be changing his decision regarding access for broadcasting."

The station's attorney responded by making an oral motion for broadcast access under North Carolina's Open Meetings Law. Morelock denied the motion. The station then request the panel refrain from proceeding with the hearing until it could have a judicial review of Morelock's decision.

Morelock denied this request as well.

WRAL is asking the court to declare the North Carolina State Bar's disciplinary hearing commission in violation of the open meeting law and to permanently enjoin it from further or continuous violations.

It is represented by Hugh Stevens of Stevens, Martin, Vaughn & Tadych PLLC in Raleigh.

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