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

FILE - This arrest photo made available by the Richland County, S.C., Jail, shows Frederick Hopkins. A judge shut a courtroom from the public and reporters on Thursday, June 29, 2023, as he heard pretrial motions in Hopkins' death penalty case. He is charged with killing two police officers in a 2018 ambush. (Richland County Jail via AP, File)
AP
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Richland County Jail
FILE - This arrest photo made available by the Richland County, S.C., Jail, shows Frederick Hopkins. A judge shut a courtroom from the public and reporters on Thursday, June 29, 2023, as he heard pretrial motions in Hopkins' death penalty case. He is charged with killing two police officers in a 2018 ambush. (Richland County Jail via AP, File)

A judge shut a courtroom from the public and reporters Thursday during pretrial motions in the death penalty case of a South Carolina man charged with killing two police officers in a 2018 ambush.

Court hearings in South Carolina are almost always open. But lawyers for Frederick Hopkins successfully argued that potential jurors could be exposed to information that a judge might later decide to exclude from trial. Thursday's hearing centered on whether some evidence or statements from witness would be allowed at trial.

"If it were publicly disseminated prior to the jury summons, it would be virtually impossible for us to get a jury in Florence County. And it would necessitate trying to move the trial. Which I don't think anybody wants to do," defense attorney Boyd Young said according to WPDE-TV.

Prosecutor 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 streamlines things when you have a closed courtroom, for the purpose of that hearing. But, once a jury is selected, it's public," Griffith said.

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

In other high-profile cases, judges have ruled previous publicity was so great any extra attention from pretrial proceedings wouldn't change things. In the Alex Murdaugh trial earlier this year, the courtroom wasn't closed for evidentiary hearings before the trial despite national attention.

In another highly unusual step, all motions and records in the case have been kept off South Carolina's public court records site,

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

Hopkins kept firing at Florence city police officers trying to rescue the wounded deputies, investigators said.

Florence Police Sgt. Terrence Carraway died the day of the shooting and Florence County Sheriff's investigator Farrah Turner was wounded and died several weeks later. Five other officers were injured.

Also on Thursday, the prosecution said it would like to start the trial in the middle of February.

Hopkins attended the hearing in a wheelchair and used a device so he could better hear the court proceedings. It took several minutes to figure out the judge hadn't turned on his microphone.