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State high court rejects judge’s secret meetings

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Feb. 21, 2008  ·   The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled last week that a lower court judge erred when…

Feb. 21, 2008  ·   The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled last week that a lower court judge erred when he considered sealed documents and had closed meetings with the defense in a case involving two motorcyclists charged with starting a gunfight.

The state high court reversed and remanded Circuit Judge John Delaney Sr.’s order, noting he had violated procedural rules when he permitted lawyers representing the bikers to examine evidence and seal those results from prosecutors.

Justice Steven L. Zinter, writing for the unanimous court, said Delaney should have held a hearing to allow arguments from both the defense lawyers and prosecutors before considering the defense’s request to seal parts of the discovery and evidentiary processes.

“The court must then conduct an open hearing in which both parties can agree whether a sealed written statement may be submitted and ultimately whether the moving party has made a ‘sufficient showing’ to justify the discovery/testing request,” Zinter wrote in the opinion.

The case concerns two men who were accused of attacking numerous members of another motorcycle group at a 2006 rally in a South Dakota park. At least 16 shots were fired at the group, and both men face charges of conspiracy, aiding and abetting and committing a felony while armed.

The trials of both men have been delayed because the lawyers for the defense and prosecution have been contesting the discovery and evidentiary process. The evidence in question includes a white pickup truck that Wilson was believed to have been driving right before shots were fired, as well as pistols, ammunition and a gun magazine that were found at the scene.

When both sides failed to agree on arranging the scientific testing of the ammunition clip and the truck, the judge held hearings with attorneys for the defense. The defense also submitted a sealed motion to test the truck without prosecutors present. They argued that their motion and tests would reveal their defense strategy. Delaney issued an order granting the requests.

“In hindsight,” Zinter wrote, “a review of [the] transcript reflects that virtually everything said by the court, counsel and the defendants could have been disclosed in open court.”

Custer County state attorney Tracy Kelley said the decision could have widespread impact.

“If things are being discussed behind closed doors that are supposed to be in open court, it’s not only the state, but also the media and general public that are being prevented from having access to information that should be readily available to them,” Kelley said.

She said that if it had been decided another way, the case could have had a slippery slope effect.

“It would have potentially opened the flood gate for trial lawyers to try their cases behind closed doors,” she said.

(South Dakota v. Wilson)Amy Harder

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