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Court upholds sealing of documents in Oklahoma City bombing trial

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Court upholds sealing of documents in Oklahoma City bombing trial 07/28/97 COLORADO--In mid-July, a federal appeals court in Denver (10th…

Court upholds sealing of documents in Oklahoma City bombing trial

07/28/97

COLORADO–In mid-July, a federal appeals court in Denver (10th Cir.) unanimously affirmed rulings by federal District Judge Richard Matsch sealing documents filed in the first Oklahoma City bombing prosecution, observing that “it is important to bear in mind the extraordinary context of this case as a whole.”

Agreeing that “court documents are covered by a common law right of access,” the three-judge panel declined to determine whether the media also possess a First Amendment right of access to judicial documents where, as here, they were present at the underlying proceedings. The court applied the “experience and logic” test established by the Supreme Court, which asks whether the document at issue has historically been open to inspection by the press and public, and whether public access plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the particular process in question.

The media challenged the sealing of a motion to suppress evidence filed by Terry Lynn Nichols, co-defendant of Timothy James McVeigh, an exhibit filed in connection with Nichols’ motion to suppress, comprised of FBI reports summarizing statements allegedly made by Nichols to the authorities, and a motion for separate trials filed by both defendants. Some of the documents were released in redacted form.

The panel said that access to the motion to suppress and related exhibits were “not supported by either tradition or logic” because the press has no right of access to inadmissible evidence, sealing was necessary to “protect the integrity” of Matsch’s ruling that statements in the documents were inadmissible hearsay, and the redacted documents provided sufficient background to understand the proceedings.

The court also found that full disclosure of the severance documents would have compromised unduly the defendants’ fair trial rights because each defendant had a strong interest in shifting blame to the other, requiring counsel to “discuss candidly his trial strategy and the strengths and weaknesses of his respective case.”

The sealings were challenged by two groups of media organizations, known as the Colorado-Oklahoma Trial Group and the Colorado-Oklahoma Media Group. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times filed a joint amici curiae brief in support of the media. (U.S. v. McVeigh; Media Counsel: Paul Watler, Dallas)