Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Efforts to hide sheriff’s court records misguided, harmful to public, county

3/22/2013

Denied.

It’s a word with which the community and The Herald have become all-too-familiar during the past few months.

Our readers want to know why the Kansas Bureau of Investigation served a search warrant on the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in September. They want to know exactly why the sheriff was arrested late last month. They want to know why the allegations of wrongdoing are so serious they warranted the Franklin County attorney’s efforts to remove the sheriff from office, but aren’t being made public for the people who voted him into the position.

The answers from the KBI, county government and the courts: Denied. Denied. Denied.

After the newspaper made more than a dozen largely failed open records requests to different agencies — attempting to gain access to documents about the investigation and the subsequent arrest of Sheriff Jeff Curry — we filed a motion to intervene in the case earlier this week. Our efforts are aimed at unsealing court documents that would detail the specific allegations against the county’s top law enforcement official.

Members of the public aren’t merely curious about Curry’s arrest. They have a right to know.

So far, however, the KBI, Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office, Franklin County, Franklin County District Court and even Curry’s defense attorney have presented a unified front in keeping such records out of the public’s reach.

Though some people might have been surprised Thursday by Curry’s resignation announcement, the maneuver was effective in again denying the public vital information about the case by curtailing Thursday’s ouster hearing — a courtroom proceeding that presumably would have revealed the exact nature of the charges against Curry and the allegations of his wrongdoing.

Such across-the-board tactics to conceal the details of the sheriff’s criminal and civil cases do more than deny members of the public information they deserve; the efforts reek of hypocrisy and double standards.

The court has not provided a rationale for keeping documents in the case sealed — itself an affront to transparency and justice — but some have suggested the action is to prevent the information from prejudicing potential jury members (if the criminal case actually makes it to trial), while others have indicated the documents are sealed to protect the reputations of those implicated in the investigation and arrests.

Why do those involved in Curry’s case get such a courtesy?

When Eric Scrutchfield, then a Franklin County employee, was arrested in 2011 on charges related to the reported sexual assault of 6-year-old child, no one in law enforcement or the courts attempted to protect his right to a fair trial by limiting public information to only vague details of the allegations against him. To our knowledge, no one sealed up court documents to prevent people from learning the case’s graphic details, which became widely known at trial. In Scrutchfield’s case, the public wasn’t kept in the dark.

But the sheriff — a top elected official responsible for upholding the law — appears to face justice with a different set of rules. Whether reality or not, the public perception increasingly is that of a cover-up, a damaging sentiment that threatens the credibility of both the sheriff’s office and the local judicial system as a whole.

In the absence of information, community members are left only with speculation. And, boy, are they speculating.

The Herald gets calls and emails every day from people with their own theories about the sheriff, his officers and others potentially involved with the case. Their speculation runs the gamut, but — largely based on information gleaned from the list of potential witnesses, as well as other bits and pieces of news and observations about the case — they typically center around the sheriff, drugs, money and Heather Jones, a former Franklin County attorney and longtime Curry associate who also is listed as one of the likely witnesses if the sheriff’s case goes to trial.

One other constant from such concerned community members: Fear.

Not everyone admits it outright, but they’re afraid of the sheriff. And because they don’t know the scope of the alleged crimes, many people also are afraid of the sheriff’s office as a whole. Some have told us they won’t call 911 because they fear the sheriff’s office might be at the other end. Others have said they won’t open their doors if deputies come knocking. Residents have said they aren’t willing to speak out because they’re afraid of retaliation by Curry and his officers.

Justified or not, such speculation and fears are dangerous — both for the community and the sheriff’s deputies who might now enter hostile situations with scared residents when merely attempting to respond to calls.

Keeping the details of the civil and criminal cases against Curry secret not only does a tremendous disservice to the public, but also jeopardizes the faith community members have placed in their elected officials, law enforcement officers and the judicial system. It calls into question fundamental ideas of fairness and equality under the law.

Eric Scrutchfield got a fair (though far from speedy) trial, even though information about his case was made widely available. Earlier this month, a jury of Scrutchfield’s peers found him not guilty on two of the charges in the child sex abuse case (they were hung on two other charges after more than 23 hours of deliberation). The verdict wasn’t tainted by the court’s transparency — the jury took its time considering the evidence presented, and it appears the system worked as well as could be expected. Why wouldn’t the same be good enough for the sheriff?

We suspect the prosecutors, investigators and others targeting Curry in court merely are trying to safeguard their cases against the sheriff by withholding detailed information. But such efforts come at a cost — namely undermining the public’s trust in the agencies set up to protect and serve justice on behalf of the community. If the case against Curry is strong enough to warrant calling for the sheriff’s resignation, it ought to be strong enough to withstand public scrutiny.

That logic can’t be denied.

— Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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