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Media challenge court's closure of murder trial documents

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         KANSAS         Secret Courts         Feb 8, 2001    

Media challenge court’s closure of murder trial documents

  • Two media outlets claim that keeping documents open would not violate the defendants’ right to fair trials.

Two Wichita, Kan., media outlets are challenging a judge’s order to seal documents concerning two quadruple murders in December.

The Wichita Eagle and KWCH filed a motion Jan. 11 to remove a seal on court records and copies of the emergency dispatch tapes, emergency medical service records and police crime reports. These documents are usually open to the public.

“It is kind of unusual that the court has reached outside of its own courtroom to close records,” said Blaine Kimrey, an attorney for the media.

The records pertain to two quadruple homicides, one of which occurred Dec. 7, 2000, when four young people were killed in a home. In the other, eight days later, five people were abducted from a residence, forced to withdraw money from an ATM and then taken to a field and shot in the head. One woman survived the gunshot wound and ran to a nearby neighborhood for help.

The defense said the seal is needed to protect the defendants’ right to fair trials.

The media disagreed. The motion from the Wichita Eagle and KWCH said the documents are needed to better inform the public and could be released without jeopardizing fair trials.

The motion also said the media did not have a chance to oppose the seal at the time District Judge Clark Owens put it into effect Dec. 26, 2000.

The hearing was held Jan. 26.

Lawyers for the media argued that the seal did not pass the current test used in Kansas.

“Current precedence from the Kansas Supreme Court is that to justify sealing records you have to show there is a clear and present danger to the right of the defendant to have a fair trial and that there are no other reasonable alternatives to closure,” Kimrey said.

Alternatives to the closure order could include changing the jury pool, sequestering the jury, questioning potential jurors about publicity and delaying trials.

The defense argued the media has no standing to intervene in a criminal trial.

The judge has taken the motion to intervene into consideration and Kimrey said he expects him to issue an oral judgement within the next week.

In the meantime, John Val Wachtel, a defense lawyer in one of the cases, has filed a motion to seal all records in the case and prevent witnesses, lawyers and law enforcement from releasing any information.

“It’s a blanket, close the court, close all records and gag everybody except for the media, and we’re working on a response to that,” Kimrey said. “That will be a whole other battle, even if we do get the protective order set aside. Theoretically the judge could close everything again in response to the motion of the defense.”

(Kansas v. Carr; Kansas v. Bell; State v. Oliver; Media counsel: Blaine Kimrey, Lanthrop & Gage L.C., Kansas City, Mo.) EH

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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