- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Judges trying to close hearings and seal court documents should be a cause for concern among members of news media outlets, two organizations say.

“We have become increasingly concerned by the knee-jerk sealing of court documents and closing of hearings in so many cases,” said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. “It seems that it has become standard operating procedure in murder cases.”

A Kansas Supreme Court ruling filed July 17, 1981, laid out clear and concise rules a judge must follow before closing any pretrial proceedings or sealing records, said Ron Keefover, a retired spokesman for the Supreme Court and president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports (http://bit.ly/1nBVHbt ).

The Kansas City Star Co. filed a lawsuit to compel Leighton A. Fossey, associate district judge of the Sixth Judicial District, to open certain criminal proceedings in the case of the State of Kansas v. James M. Crumm. The case arose from an April 17, 1980, homicide in Miami County. Crumm was charged with the first-degree murder of his 13-year-old stepbrother.

Crumm was found guilty of first-degree murder on May 1, 1981. On the same day, the Kansas City Star Co. filed a challenge of the hearing’s closure with the Kansas Supreme Court.

The high court’s decision said a judge could close a pretrial hearing and seal the record only if dissemination of information from those sources would create a “clear and present danger to the fairness of the trial” and the prejudicial effect of the information on trial fairness couldn’t be avoided by any reasonable alternative means.

Despite that ruling, there have been several cases recently where hearings have been closed and documents have been sealed.

“We have a quadruple murder in Parsons that occurred Nov. 26 - five months ago - and the newspaper still has not been able to report details of the crime that would answer a good many questions the public has,” Anstaett said. “This is basic information, and it’s hidden from the public but only in Kansas.”

Peter Cook, publisher of the Parsons Sun, agrees. He has been with the Sun for three years but has spent 51 years in the industry.

“This is probably, out of the eight or nine or 10 newspaper chains I’ve worked for, the worst state, as far as open records,” Cook said.

David Cornell Bennett Jr., 22, of Cherryvale, has been charged with capital murder, rape and criminal threat. He allegedly killed Cami Jo Umbarger, of Parsons, and her three children.

Rumors have been flying around the community, but the newspaper can’t report much because all hearings have been closed and court documents have been sealed, Cook said.

“We’ve been completely shut out from all information,” he said. “We can’t get probable cause, search warrants. We can’t even get the initial incident report.”

Police and the courts say they can’t release the information because of the “continuing investigation,” the publisher said.

“Nothing is available to us,” Cook said. “It is pretty outrageous. It is definitely a violation of the public’s right to know what is going on in their own community.”

The Sun can’t fight the issue on its own, Cook said.

“We don’t have the manpower or money, and they know it,” he said.

Locally, several television stations and newspapers were up in arms after a Franklin County judge granted the prosecution’s motion to close an evidentiary hearing in the case of Kyle Trevor Flack, who is charged with killing four people in rural Franklin County. Three court filings also were sealed in the case by Franklin County District Judge Thomas H. Sachse, who has since retired.

Several weeks after the evidentiary hearing was closed, the judge granted the state’s motion to withdraw its request for a closed hearing after determining it didn’t meet the criteria necessary to keep the public out.

In August 2012, Kingman County District Court Judge Larry Solomon closed a hearing in the Brett Seacat murder trial amid concerns that “evidence later ruled inadmissible, if publicized, could prevent Brett Seacat from obtaining a fair murder trial,” according to the Wichita Eagle.

Seacat was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, Vashti Seacat, 34. He was found guilty and in August 2013 was sentenced to life plus six years and three months in prison.

To help decrease the closing of hearings, journalists “need to stand up,” Keefover said.

“The media have standing to object to closures,” he said. “I think as long as no one is objecting, it will become more widespread.”

In February, the Kansas House passed HB 2555, which would unseal the court records used to establish probable cause to obtain a search or arrest warrant.

Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, said Kansas is the only state that “presumptively, automatically, completely seals all probable cause documents.”

The work on the probable cause affidavits issue “is a result of having far too much secrecy in the criminal justice system in Kansas,” Anstaett said. “We are so far behind other states that it’s an embarrassment.”

Keefover said HB 2555 “still has a pulse” and may be discussed when legislators reconvene Wednesday.

“In my mind, open and honest courts are really what separate our country from dictatorships,” he said.

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

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