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Media protest sealed evidence in Yosemite murder trial

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Secret Courts         Jul 13, 2000    

Media protest sealed evidence in Yosemite murder trial

  • Four news organizations seek an opportunity to argue against sealing evidence showing heinousness of the 1999 murders in Yosemite National Park.

The public has the right to argue against the sealing of evidence that will be used to justify a death penalty request in the case of a man facing federal murder charges for one of the 1999 Yosemite National Park murders, according to a motion filed by four news organizations in federal court in Fresno on July 7.

The Associated Press, The Chronicle Publishing Co., McClatchy Newspapers Inc., and The Hearst Corp. requested that U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii strike his June order sealing the summary of evidence that prosecutors say will establish that Joie Armstrong was killed in “an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner,” one of the statutory aggravating factors that support a death sentence, according to an AP report.

The news organizations argue that Ishii did not follow U.S. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals (9th Cir.) precedent when he deprived the public of its First Amendment rights to proper notice of the proposed sealing, an opportunity to be heard during a hearing on the issue, and a factual explanation supporting its decision, according to the AP. The motion notes that the information has historically been open to the public.

The national debate about the death penalty centers partly “on the fairness of the prosecutorial decision-making process,” and in this case “there is substantial public interest in learning, and substantial benefit to the public in understanding, on what basis that critical prosecutorial decision was made,” the AP quotes the motion as arguing.

According to the AP, prosecutors appeared ready to disclose in open court the evidence that will allegedly prove that the crimes against Armstrong were committed in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner at a June 15 pretrial hearing. But Ishii cut them off, telling them that a written proffer of evidence would suffice. Ishii later granted a defense counsel request that the proffer be filed under seal, making it unavailable to the public.

Cary Stayner has been charged with kidnaping, attempted sexual assault and murder in Armstrong’s July 21 death. Stayner has allegedly confessed to her murder, in addition to the murders of sightseers Carole Sund, her daughter Juli and family friend Silvina Pelosso five months earlier. Stayner’s trial on the Armstrong charges — which will be brought in federal court because she was killed in a national park — is currently slated to begin on Oct. 17. The other charges against Stayner have been brought in state court.

(United States v. Stayner; Media Counsel: Neil Shapiro, San Francisco) GK

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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