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Conn. high court overturns unsealing order in murder trial

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A list of potential witnesses for an upcoming triple murder trial should not be released to the public, the Connecticut…

A list of potential witnesses for an upcoming triple murder trial should not be released to the public, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in an opinion officially released today.

The high court's ruling overturns the trial judge's decision to unseal the potential witness list in State v. Komisarjevsky, one of Connecticut's "most notorious cases, at least in recent memory," according the state supreme court. Komisarjevsky faces multiple capital felony counts in connection with the 2007 murder of a woman and her two daughters in Cheshire, Connecticut.

The trial court initially sealed the list of potential witnesses in the case at the beginning of jury selection in March, at Komisarjevsky's request. The Hartford Courant Company and one of its reporters intervened to request that the trial court unseal the "witness lists," which included not only potential witnesses for trial but also individuals "associated with the prosecution or defense."

The defendant objected to the unsealing of the defense list — which contained "well over 100 names," according to the supreme court — but the trial court sided with the media. The trial judge reasoned that witness lists were presumptively public documents, and that the defendant had not provided sufficient grounds to overcome the presumptive right of public access.

The state supreme court overturned that decision this month, ruling that the trial court abused its discretion in unsealing the witness list.

The state high court began its analysis by commenting that "serious questions exist" regarding whether the witness list is a presumptively public "judicial document," although it assumed the list qualified here. Nonetheless, the court said that the defendant had demonstrated that unsealing the list would jeopardize his rights to prepare a defense and to a fair trial.

"Undoubtedly, the defendant bears the burden of proving that sealing a document is warranted," Justice Lubbie Harper, Jr., wrote for the supreme court. But the trial court "abused its discretion in failing to consider the effect of disclosing the witness list on the defendant’s sixth amendment rights" to prepare a defense and to a fair trial, Harper said.

Reasoning that potential witnesses may be less willing to cooperate if their names were publicly disclosed before trial, the court agreed with the defendant that the "only means to protect" the defendant's fair trial rights was to "continue the sealing of the witness list."

The court also discounted the public interest in the particular witness list.

"The public’s interest in knowing the identity of possible defense witnesses under the circumstances in the present case is extremely limited," Harper wrote, "and, to the extent that the list contains relevant information, the public’s interest adequately is protected by its access to the voir dire proceedings and the trial."

Although the Supreme Court's opinion was officially released today, it was available and reported on earlier this month.