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Newspaper appeals death penalty records denial

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Freedom of Information         Mar 15, 2001    

Newspaper appeals death penalty records denial

  • A trial judge ruled that documents prepared to try to keep a defendant from receiving the death penalty were exempt under state open records law.

A newspaper in Spokane, Wash., has appealed a Pierce County Superior Court ruling to keep confidential documents submitted to county prosecutors by attorneys representing a confessed murderer who faces the death penalty.

Judge John McCarthy ruled Feb. 5 that the documents are exempt from disclosure under the state Open Records Act. He said the documents are part of an ongoing investigation which could be harmed if the items were released, and that they constitute the work product of an involved party and would not be available under rules of trial disclosure.

Lawyers representing Robert L. Yates Jr. submitted a mitigation package to prosecutors to dissuade them from pursuing the death penalty against Yates, who pled guilty last year, in a separate case, to killing 13 people and received more than 400 years in prison. If convicted of two counts of aggravated murder in Pierce County, prosecutors said they will seek death by lethal injection. The documents filed by the lawyers included biographical sketches, letters and photographs of Yates and his family.

The Spokesman-Review filed a request under the state’s Open Records Act on Jan. 19 for the mitigation documents. Prosecutors denied the request and the defense attorneys asked a superior court judge to issue a protective order barring public inspection of the documents. Then Cowles Publishing Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review, filed a civil suit claiming the documents should be released.

Opposed by both the prosecutors and defense counsel, The Spokesman-Review argued that the documents should be public because they were used to decide whether to seek the death penalty, which is a public process. The lawyers in the murder case said releasing the documents could hurt Yates’ chance at receiving a fair trial, intrude upon his and his family’s privacy and make future defendants wary of providing prosecutors with personal information that could save them from the death penalty.

The trial court ruled in favor of closure and a date has not been set for oral arguments before the appeals court.

(Cowles Publishing Co. v. Pierce County Prosecutors Office; Media Counsel: Duane Swinton, Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole, Spokane) EH

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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