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Media wins access to sealed Yosemite murder documents

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Secret Courts         Dec 14, 2000    

Media wins access to sealed Yosemite murder documents

  • A federal appeals court unsealed the confession of a murderer and prosecutors’ brief in support of the death penalty.

A three-judge panel of the U. S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) without comment on Dec. 11 unsealed documents in a Yosemite murder case after a murder defendant pleaded guilty, thereby assuaging concerns about violating his right to a fair trial.

Defense attorneys for Cary Stayner argued that releasing the documents, which included graphic details of the killing, would unfairly prejudice Stayner during pending trials in state court. Stayner, accused of raping and beheading Joie Armstrong in Yosemite National Park, pleaded guilty in a Fresno, Calif., federal district court on Nov. 30. Federal prosecutors had sought the death penalty in the case. Several news organizations sought access to the court documents claiming a great public interest in a federal death penalty case.

“It’s important that the public know the original basis for seeking the death penalty. It’s important to compare that to other information in the case so the public can understand why they accepted the plea agreement,” said attorney Neil Shapiro, who represented the interested media, which included Knight Ridder, the Hearst Corp., the Associated Press, and McClatchy Newspapers.

The media asked for the documents filed by federal prosecutors that included an interrogation of Stayner in which he confessed and the brief in support of imposing the death penalty. Federal district judge Anthony Ishii sealed the documents, agreeing with defense attorneys who argued too much publicity of the case would unfairly prejudice their client’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

Following Stayner’s guilty plea, the media organizations renewed their request with the federal district court to have the records unsealed, as Stayner’s right to a fair trial would no longer be implicated. Ishii decided to unseal the documents, but allowed defense attorneys to present their case to the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

The media organizations reiterated the public interest in the case and that the guilty plea ended concerns of impugning a fair trial.

(U.S. v. Stayner; Media Counsel: Neil Shapiro, McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen, San Francisco) AG

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