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Defense attorney wants ‘First 48’ TV footage
‘The First 48’ program shot video of CMPD’s investigation of crime scene for broadcast.
The attorney for a murder suspect in Charlotte wants a judge to order “The First 48” TV show to turn over its video footage of a police investigation that led to his client’s arrest.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have granted the show extraordinary access to videotape murder scenes and investigative efforts to later broadcast on its program that chronicles police in various U.S. cities trying to solve murders.
Charlotte attorney Jeremy Smith says he believes the program has video of the crime scene, investigative interviews and the capture of his client in Cabarrus County.
But lawyers for the TV show argue that their videographers are journalists protected by N.C. law from being compelled to disclose information they gather. Before a judge can order such information to be turned over, they say, the defense must show the information is essential to the defendant’s case and is unavailable from other sources.
Jonathan Fitzgerald, 19, is charged with murder in connection with an August 2010 slaying. Oscar Alvarado Chavez, 22, was stabbed to death in his car behind the Advenir Apartments on Central Avenue. Police have said a man and a woman met Chavez to buy heroin, but robbed and killed him instead.
During Friday’s court hearing, a series of police officers including Chief Rodney Monroe testified about the department’s arrangement with “The First 48” and about the videographers’ work in the investigation of Chavez’s slaying.
Monroe testified that he agreed to give “The First 48” access to murder investigations in hopes that it would showcase the professionalism of his detectives and build confidence in their work.
“I think we have one of the finest homicide units in the country,” Monroe said, who has previously noted that the department does not get paid for the filming.
“The First 48” focuses on the first two days of a murder investigation – the period widely believed to be most crucial to catching a killer.
Critics say such heavily edited programs can give a distorted, simplistic picture of police work. They worry that embedding cameras with officers changes how people act – and can jeopardize officers, their investigations, and the public.
The show recently drew criticism after a crew following detectives in Detroit taped a raid that left a 7-year-old girl dead. Police accidentally shot Aiyana Stanley-Jones after bursting into a home in search of a murder suspect. The killing raised questions about whether the presence of cameras led officers to act brashly.
Fitzgerald’s attorney argued Friday that his client is entitled to review all evidence gathered by police, and that he considers the footage possible evidence.
But Michael Sheridan, the TV show’s co-executive producer, testified “The First 48” would not release its footage to either the defense or prosecution.
Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson is expected to decide when the hearing resumes Thursday whether “The First 48” must turn over its video.
In court papers, Fitzgerald’s attorney said the TV company was gathering information on behalf of the CMPD. The company that produces the television series, he says, is part of the “prosecutorial agency” in the case and is required to turn over its complete file in his client’s case.
But the program’s lawyers say all of CMPD’s witness interviews at the police station – including a confession by Fitzgerald – were recorded by CMPD, and that the material has been turned over to the defense.
The lawyers say the video was obtained to serve the program’s own interests, not to further the police interest in solving the murder.
“Any public relations benefit to the police department from The First 48 is merely an incidental benefit of the series and does not mean that the independent television producers are working on behalf of the government to catch and convict the criminal perpetrators.”
In documents, lawyers for the TV show disclosed details about the murder investigation and questioning by police of Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, they say, acknowledged that he and his girlfriend met Chavez to purchase drugs from him, but lacking money, intended to rob him if he would not agree to trade the drugs for a cell phone.
“Mr. Fitzgerald admitted that he brought a knife to the meeting and stabbed Mr. Chavez during a physical struggle while he attempted to rob Mr. Chavez of his drugs,” the documents say.
The court papers also say that Fitzgerald told officers he’d messed up, then asked: “Do we have the death penalty in North Carolina?”
“When the officer answered in the affirmative, Mr. Fitzgerald responded, ‘Can I ask for it?’ “