Friday, November 28, 2014

Judge denies media, not individual access in case

8/18/2014

A Labette County district judge declined Wednesday to unseal probable-cause affidavits in connection with the case of a man charged with the November 2013 slayings of a Parsons woman and her three children.

The Topeka Capital-Journal has long championed opening such affidavits to public scrutiny and supported the Legislature’s decision earlier this year to pass a bill that, following decades of darkness, allowed courts to open the documents after law enforcement and prosecutors had opportunity to redact certain types of information.

A Labette County district judge declined Wednesday to unseal probable-cause affidavits in connection with the case of a man charged with the November 2013 slayings of a Parsons woman and her three children.

The Topeka Capital-Journal has long championed opening such affidavits to public scrutiny and supported the Legislature’s decision earlier this year to pass a bill that, following decades of darkness, allowed courts to open the documents after law enforcement and prosecutors had opportunity to redact certain types of information.

On another day, the newspaper would take issue with the Labette County judge’s ruling on affidavits concerning the quadruple homicide case. But we find a statement the judge made when issuing his ruling more important than the ruling itself. That statement cannot go unchallenged.

In denying a request by The Parsons Sun newspaper to unseal the affidavits, District Judge Robert Fleming said he needed to balance the right of the public to know against the right of the defendant to a fair trial, and the right of the state and defense to prepare their cases without prejudice.

Fleming then said: “I think I need to keep in mind that it’s the public’s right to know, not necessarily the individual media.”

What?

Does the judge think a Parsons Sun reporter is going to read the documents for his or her own edification then toss them in a drawer or simply pass them around the newsroom? Whatever the judge was thinking, his statement was incredulous.

There is no law that addresses the media’s right to know separate from the public’s right to know. The public’s right to know encompasses all members of the public, including “individual media,” The Parsons Sun in this case.

The Parsons Sun, other newspapers covering the case, radio and television stations covering the case and the websites operated by all those entities disseminate information to the public. That makes it easy for readers, listeners and viewers to readily access the information they want. In the case of the quadruple homicide in Parsons, unsealing the documents would have made the unredacted information in them available to a lot of people, including those who pay taxes to support the court system, law enforcement departments and prosecutor’s office in Labette County, all of which are responsible to the public.

For a judge to suggest he isn’t disregarding the public’s right to know because he’s only dealing with a request from an “individual media” is an insult to the public’s intelligence.

The Topeka Capital-Journal

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