Thirty years ago, Ming Sen Shiue kidnapped his former high school teacher, held her captive in his home for 53 days, and raped her nearly every night. Shiue videotaped his assaults on his victim. When he was tried and convicted, two Twin Cities television stations—KSTP and WCCO—fought to get the videotapes.
"What in the world would they do with those tapes?" asks Fred Brown, who co-chairs the ethics committee of the Society for Professional Journalists
In 1980, District Court Judge Edward J. Devitt seemed equally baffled. "I am trying to find out why you want the tapes and why you would rebroadcast them," he said. "What public service would be rendered?"
Attorney Sidney Barrows, representing KSTP-TV, said the media had a right to evidence introduced in a public trial. He cited the case of an FBI sting of elected officials taking bribes. The media had successfully gotten tapes of the sting. The rape tapes were trial exhibits and so the media should have them, Barrows argued.
"We have a unique opportunity to instruct people and to educate them to the mind that leads to a senseless deed like this," he said.
The prosecution and the defense both wanted the tapes kept private.
"Nobody is clamoring to see these tapes," said Carol Grant, of Shiue's defense team. "The media is generating its own news in this case, and I believe it's a type of voyeurism that is offensive."
Devitt ruled that the tapes would not be released. He said there was a distinct difference between the public's right to see elected officials being bribed and a "missionary lady being raped." KSTP appealed the case and lost. WCCO did not join the appeal.
Thirty years later, the KSTP case is frequently cited when judges must balance the press and the public's First Amendment rights to information against the individual's right to privacy. Though the Minnesota judge ruled in the victim's favor, courts in other jurisdictions have gone the other way.
"There continues to be even today a question about whether the right to public and press access to court trials—a constitutional right—extends to a right to copy trial exhibits," says Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics at the University of Minnesota.
In 2006, a rape victim in Oklahoma gave a videotape of the crime to the police with the understanding that it would remain non-public information. A police officer allowed the station to copy portions of the tape; the station aired parts showing only the woman's feet and calves. She sued the television station for violation of privacy. The court ruled in favor of the TV station.
Both cases present two issues: First Amendment rights and journalistic ethics, says Peter Sussman, a journalist who wrote the SPJ ethics code.
"On the ethics side of it, I don't know why they sought this," Sussman says of the KSTP lawsuit. "I don't know why they even went to court to get this, because there are other ways to establish that principle."
Kirtley worries that new media and bloggers might not think about some of the ethical issues traditional journalists are trained to consider. That could affect judges, she says. "They will be looking at what they see as a misuse of court exhibits and shut down access as a result," she predicts.
Once the press had lost its case for the videotapes, Shiue, the convicted rapist, sought to get them back. Local author Eileen Biernat, who has documented the Shiue case in a forthcoming book, describes what happened next:
By court order, the videotapes were never copied. Only the original tapes existed as part of the court record of the proceedings, and those tapes were kept in the court's vault, banned from public view.
In 1982, with both the kidnapping and murder trials concluded, from his maximum-security cell, Ming Sen Shiue wrote a letter to the court asserting his ownership rights to the videotapes and asking to have them returned.
The court agreed that Shiue had ownership rights to the tapes.
Several weeks later, an excited Ming Shiue tore open a thick brown paper package from the court and was delighted to find his videotapes inside.
Shiue believed his wish had come true, that he could spend the next 30 years of his life in prison reliving those hours spent with Mary Stauffer. With a wide grin on his face, he carefully broke away the black plastic casing enclosing the film reels. He held the first filmstrip toward the bare light bulb in his cell. He saw—nothing. Frantically, he unwound each of the remaining tapes, holding the filmstrips toward up to the light—desperate for even a glimpse of Mary Stauffer.
When he realized that every tape was blank, meticulously erased by a court administrative technician, an enraged Ming Shiue flung the film reels against the wall of his cell and cried.