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Media seeks to unseal records in lacrosse murder trial

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Four media organizations that teamed up and petitioned a Charlottesville judge to unseal records in the trial of a University…

Four media organizations that teamed up and petitioned a Charlottesville judge to unseal records in the trial of a University of Virginia student charged with murder won a small battle on Tuesday.

But the fight isn’t over.

The news outlets were able to obtain copies of partially redacted orders explaining why search warrants and affidavits have been sealed, but the records themselves remain out of the public’s view.

David Lacy, an associate with the Richmond law firm Christian & Barton, which is representing the media outlets in the case, said a motion will likely be filed in the coming days asking Judge Cheryl Higgins to unseal all records in the case. A July 1 hearing is scheduled for Higgins to hear arguments on the motion.

“We’ll be making the decision whether to file a motion very quickly,” he said. “But we just got the [partially unsealed orders] and we’re reviewing them.”

The records are related to the May 3 death of University of Virginia senior and star lacrosse player Yeardley Love. Love’s former boyfriend, George Hughley, also a lacrosse player, is charged with first degree murder in her death and the case has gained national attention.

While some of the search warrants were obtained by media outlets before Higgins sealed them, several records have not been viewed by the media, and those which had previously been open are now sealed.

The four organizations – The Washington Post, Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Daily Progress [Charlottesville] and The Associated Press – petitioned Higgins to unseal her sealing orders and on Tuesday, which Higgins granted, but only in accordance with an order proposed by Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman.

That order allowed for release of partially redacted copies of the orders to seal. While some information was still hidden, the orders did reveal the reasons the records were sealed in the first place: that “public dissemination at this time of highly detailed information such as contained in the affidavit, the search warrant, and any return made thereon may prejudice the ability of law enforcement authorities to continue their investigation” or “may prejudice the ability in any subsequent trial to select an impartial jury.”

Lacy said the problem with the argument that a potential jury could be tainted by news reports is that there has been no evidence that there is a real possibility of harm to a jury pool. He said that while the upcoming motion, if filed, would likely request Higgins to unseal the underlying records, he also expects for Chapman to try to show why a jury pool could be harmed by releasing records.

“I expect there will be somewhat of an evidentiary hearing,” he said.

Since the order was entered to seal all of the records, including the orders to seal the records, the media outlets and their attorneys have had a difficult time getting any information even as to why the records were sealed.

“Given the reasons stated in the order for sealing the records and the lack of particular facts we’ve seen,” Lacy said it wasn’t exactly clear what to expect if a motion is filed and heard July 1.

Chapman, who made all of the requests to Higgins to seal records in the case, would not comment on the petition to unseal the records or how he would respond to a motion from the media outlets, citing an office policy about commenting in ongoing cases.

The defense attorneys representing Hughley in the criminal case have not expressed an opinion or filed any motions regarding whether the records should be unsealed.