- 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.”

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