CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - Those interested in Greg Hardy's upcoming domestic abuse trial will soon be able to follow along from home.
For the first time, Mecklenburg County court officials will be putting selective documents online for high-profile criminal cases. They're starting with Hardy, the Carolina Panthers star defensive end who is scheduled to be back in court this month in a case with national exposure.
Newly elected Clerk of Court Elisa Chinn Gary, who ran on a platform of innovation and greater public access to court records, said the new program should be up and running before attorneys begin picking Hardy's jury on Feb. 9.
A courthouse group, which includes the clerk and the trial court administrator's office, studied the online practices of courts systems in Georgia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. They're now working with the webmasters of the state court system's website for final technical details.
In no more than a week, those interested in the Hardy trial can surf to the Mecklenburg County page on the North Carolina courts' website and peruse such case documents as arrest warrants, affidavits and judicial orders.
"It gives us one point of contact for the public or anyone else who is interested," said Trial Court Administrator Todd Nuccio. "We hope it becomes a service to the community."
Chinn Gary said the effort is starting with highly publicized cases such as Hardy's and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick's manslaughter trial in hopes of keeping the community informed. The move will also limit the time and expense spent by the clerk's office to meet frequent public and media demands for paper records in those cases, she said.
"I think it's terrific," said Charlotte attorney Gary Jackson, who specializes in cases involving the public's right to know. "Whether they're additional documents, exhibits, jury instructions, whatever they intend to do, the more information the better. It brings the courthouse to the community."
Most federal court records already are available on a pay system known as PACER (Public Access to Electronic Court Records), which charges account holders a nominal fee for each page they read. In return, millions of criminal and civil documents are only a few keystrokes away.
Greg Hurley, senior knowledge management analyst for the National Center for State Courts, said most local court records in North Carolina and elsewhere reside in a state of "practical obscurity." Translation: The public can see them, but only if the public travels to the courthouse and asks for the file.
It may be decades before states have something resembling PACER, Hurley said, though he added: "The tide is changing. I think we're seeing more and more things from state courts put online."
Some members of the local legal community have questions about the upcoming change.
George Laughrun, who in July will defend Kerrick against voluntary manslaughter charges stemming from the 2013 shooting death of an unarmed man, would not discuss how the online records might affect his client's highly anticipated trial.
But he expressed concerns that while online records could educate the public, they also could be used by lawyers to sway public opinion and influence the jury pool before a trial begins.
"It scares me that this would be accessible 24/7 to anyone with a laptop," he said. "There's a danger that lawyers might try to manipulate one side or the other. … Stuff that might not be admissible in court would be highly readable online."
Hurley said state court officials around the country are involved in an ongoing fight on how to block out such information as phone numbers, addresses and Social Security numbers – personal data that commonly appears in court files.
Chinn Gary said that at least at the beginning, her office will be cautious on what it posts, particularly until her office has a better idea of what should and should not be published. For now, she said, that will be limited to documents "initiating the case," such as arrest warrants, indictments and accompanying affidavits, along with judge's orders.
That could limit the public's insight into some of the more salacious details in the case against Hardy. His first trial included riveting testimony on sex, cocaine, guns, violence, celebrity VIP rooms and $1,000 bottles of champagne.
In the end, Hardy was convicted of assaulting his former girlfriend. Given the attention paid these days to domestic violence cases involving well-known athletes, his appeal before a jury is expected to draw coverage from around the country. Hardy's attorney, Chris Fialko, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Jackson, while acknowledging the concerns for potential tampering, said the new system would have some built-in safeguards. Most court papers, he said, "have some element of credibility or they wouldn't be filed."