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Veil of secrecy finally lifted from Pennsylvania murder-for-hire case

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  1. Court Access
An RCFP attorney spent the past year helping local newspapers push for transparency in the case.
First page of Keven Van Lam criminal complaint
Keven Van Lam was arrested on Nov. 6, 2022, but the criminal complaint describing the facts of the case was not released until after his preliminary hearing nearly a year later.

Update: On March 6, 2024, the Superior Court issued an opinion in support of its order of Feb. 8, 2023, finding that the trial court “abused its discretion in denying [the news outlets’] motion to intervene and in sealing the public docket in the case against Keven Van Lam.” The court’s opinion states that, “Given the vital importance of a public docket and the presumption of openness applicable to it, nothing in the record before us supports the trial court’s decision to keep the docket sealed and keep the criminal proceeding against Van Lam entirely walled off from public view.”

Members of the press and public learned for the first time last week why a Pennsylvania man had been held for nearly a year without bail in a Westmoreland County jail on charges related to a murder in the parking lot of a public shopping center.

During a long-delayed preliminary hearing, prosecutors described how 56-year-old Keven Van Lam had allegedly arranged the killing of Boyke Budiarachman, 49, over a business partnership gone bad. Upset that Budiarachman had stolen nearly $800,000 intended for their temporary worker business, prosecutors said Lam hired a hit man who fatally shot Budiarachman in a shopping center parking lot on Nov. 5, 2022, immediately after the two business partners met for dinner at a Rostraver Township restaurant.

The preliminary hearing, which had been delayed seven times, offered the public its first glimpse inside a criminal case that has been shrouded in secrecy since Lam was arrested the day after the murder.

The Mon Valley Independent, Herald-Standard, and Observer-Reporter, represented by Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke, spent nearly a year trying to unseal court records related to the case so that the public could understand basic information about Lam’s arrest. Journalists for the newspapers first connected with Burke last year after they were unable to access any information about the state’s case against Lam, including the charges he faced, because there was no public docket. The entire case file had been sealed by the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas.

Mike Jones, a reporter for the Observer-Reporter, said he has never before seen a case where so much basic information was shielded from the public. “You had secret charges and a person held in a secret prison,” he said.

“I’ve been covering crime for decades, and I’ve never once had a problem knowing what someone was charged with or when a hearing was,” added Kristie Linden, assistant editor of the Mon Valley Independent. “We don’t have secret prisons or secret prisoners in America. This is like a Guantanamo Bay kind of thing.”

With free legal support from Burke, the newspapers successfully convinced the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas to make public at least some information about Lam’s case, including the date of his preliminary hearing. After appealing to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, the newspapers won even more transparency: the unsealing of the dockets in the case.

However, the appeals court declined to release the arrest warrant information until after Lam’s preliminary hearing, leaving the press and public without access to key facts of the case as the hearing was delayed seven times over the course of many months.

‘Absolutely indispensable’ legal support

Now that the preliminary hearing has finally taken place — and the criminal complaint has been released — members of the press and public have a much better understanding of the circumstances surrounding Lam’s arrest. (For more details about the hearing, check out reporting from Jones and Linden in the Observer-Reporter and the Mon Valley Independent.) What they still don’t understand, however, is why such basic information about the case was hidden from the public for so long?

“Nothing in the affidavit screamed for this case to be sealed,” Jones said after watching the preliminary hearing and reading the criminal complaint.

Linden said the secrecy surrounding the case is hard to make sense of considering how important it is for the public to know details about a murder that happened in public — especially when the shooter is still at large.

“This murder took place in a public parking lot. It was something the public was very interested in,” Linden said. “Everybody has a vested interest in making sure the person who did that shooting isn’t still running around and is brought to justice. Blocking that kind of information creates a feeling of unrest and not knowing if they are safe in their communities.”

In response to a question about why so much information related to Lam’s case was kept secret, a spokeswoman for the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office told the Reporters Committee in an email that “It is an active and ongoing investigation.”

Linden and Jones both praised Burke and the Reporters Committee for helping their newspapers push for transparency in the case.

Burke “was on my team, in the best way. It felt like she and I were standing together with our shields up and going to battle together,” Linden said. “If we had not been able to access that free legal assistance and move forward with this case, I don’t know where this case would be right now.”

Jones added that Burke’s legal support was “absolutely indispensable,” noting that it made him “feel like we had someone in our corner fighting for us and fighting for the public’s right to know.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

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