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High court releases affidavits of murder victim to media

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Secret Courts         Nov 9, 2000    

High court releases affidavits of murder victim to media

  • Prior to her death, Karen Sharpe had an abuse prevention order against her husband, and once he became a suspect in her murder the media sought the documents accompanying that order.

Three media outlets won the right to report the contents of three affidavits made by a now-deceased Wenham woman when she obtained an abuse prevention order against her husband in May.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in a unanimous opinion on Nov. 8, agreed with the single justice and Probate Court judge, each of whom had ordered the documents, which were part of a pending divorce, unsealed. The decision by the high court also removed a stay that had kept the affidavits under seal since July.

Richard Sharpe, indicted for the murder of his wife, argued that the affidavits should remain under seal because any media reports about their contents would interfere with his right to a fair trial. Sharpe, 46, faces a trial for first-degree murder in the shooting of his 44-year-old wife in her Wenham home on July 14. Five months prior to her death, Karen Sharpe filed for a divorce and also obtained an abuse prevention order against her husband. She appeared before a Probate Court judge again one month later when the judge extended the order. At each appearance, Karen Sharpe filed affidavits with the Probate Court.

Two newspapers and a television station sought access to the divorce files following Karen Sharpe’s death. The subsequent police investigation focused on Richard Sharpe and received concentrated media attention.

Against what the single justice, Judith Cowin, termed a “rigorous presumption of openness,” the full court held Sharpe’s constitutional rights under the Sixth Amendment did not mandate the continued impoundment of the three affidavits. The court detailed several reasons for its decision to favor the public’s right to access when balanced against Sharpe’s fundamental right to a fair criminal proceeding.

One, unsealing the affidavits affords the public a greater understanding of abuse prevention orders, which carry weighty penalties if violated. Two, the affidavits provide a way for media and public to evaluate why an abuse prevention order may or may not have been successful in protecting a victim of domestic violence. Three, the court equated the affidavits to testimony in open court where the public has nearly unfettered access.

Finally, and most specific to this case, the court said the unsealing of the affidavits would increase only marginally whatever prejudice against Sharpe existed in the community.

“The disclosure of the affidavits will increase only marginally whatever prejudice against (Richard) Sharpe may already exist: there have already been pervasive media reports of Sharpe’s physical and verbal abuse of his wife. Whatever the source, or the merits of those reports, the disclosure now of three affidavits, the contents of which are largely repetitive, is unlikely to add much of anything to the risk of an unfair criminal trial,” said the chief justice in the full court’s opinion.

(Boston Herald v. Sharpe; Media Counsel: Elizabeth Ritvo, Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer, Boston; Michael Gass, Palmer & Dodge, Boston; Roger Matthews, Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye, Boston) SM

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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