Fairness outweighs media transparency in Colorado gunman case
MOSCOW, August 14 – RAPSI, Ingrid Burke. The court adjudicating the case against accused Colorado gunman James Holmes held Monday to preserve a seal it had previously placed on James Holmes’ case file, thus denying in relevant part a motion filed by more than 20 major media outlets to unseal the court records in the name of transparency.
The Holmes case has been the subject of enormous media scrutiny since the tragic mass shooting that left 12 moviegoers dead and 58 injured during a packed midnight screening of Batman: the Dark Knight Rises on July 20.
In rendering his decision, Judge William Blair Sylvester sought to strike a balance of interests between fair trial guarantees and transparency. Holding that the former takes priority over the latter, Sylvester underscored the imperative of judicial fairness, reasoning that, “While the court is cognizant of the important role Media Petitioners play in informing the public’s legitimate interest in knowing the actions taken by government officials responsible for the investigation, prosecution, and trial of Defendant, the court also will not jeopardize the integrity of the process and the truth-seeking functions of our justice system by authorizing a premature release of records.”
Speaking specifically with regard to the petitioners’ request for the disclosure of records relating to Holmes from the University of Colorado, Judge Sylvester reasoned that the public release of damaging information cannot be undone. For dramatic effect, he likened the process to, “stepping on the brakes of an automobile in midair after driving off a cliff - a driver can pump the brakes all he/she wants, but the impending wreck is inevitable.”
According to their motion, the media petitioners were particularly interested in affidavits of probable cause and in all pleadings that have been entered in the case. The petitioners contended that the rights both of the public to information about criminal justice, and of the news media to provide that information are protected by the federal and state constitutions, as well as by the common law. They further argued that the gag order lacked a proper legal basis. According to the motion, the sealing of Holmes’ case file “violates the public’s constitutional right of access to the records of criminal prosecutions, and undermines our nation’s firm commitment to the transparency and public accountability of the criminal justice system.”
The prosecution and defense both argued that unsealing the files would be damaging to the proceedings.
The prosecution argued that unsealing the case file would hinder its investigation, and urged the necessity of allowing it to review discovery prior to any such unsealing.
The defense argued that unsealing the case file would generate prejudicial pretrial publicity that would jeopardize Holmes’ fair trial guarantees, and that unsealing the case file would carry the risk of releasing to the public confidential, privileged, or other such evidence that would be inadmissible at trial.
The court noted that currently, as a general rule Holmes’ case file is accessible only to the parties to the case. Certain exceptional documents have been made public by the court. Other documents - certain types of evidence and affidavits of probable cause - are available only to the court.
The judge unsealed approximately three dozen motions, responses, and orders related to the case. However, with regard to the bulk of the case file, based on the overarching imperative of ensuring that the proceedings will be fair to Holmes, his victims, their families, and the general public, the judge denied the petitioners’ motion.
Holmes was formally charged last Monday with 24 counts of first degree murder, 116 counts of attempted first degree murder, one count of possession of explosives, and one count of violence in connection with the mass shooting. Prosecutors filed two first-degree murder charges for each of the 12 victims that lost their lives as a result of the attack. The first 12 charges claim that Holmes committed the murders “after deliberation, and with the intent to cause the death of a person other than himself.” The second 12 claim that Holmes, “under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally, knowingly engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to persons other than himself, and thereby caused the death” of each such victim. The prosecution filed attempted murder charges under both first-degree murder theories outlined above for each of the 58 injured victims as well.