Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is urging the Supreme Court of Kansas to reverse a District Court judge’s decision to seal public records in two high-profile, death-penalty murder cases.
The Society joined a friend-of-the-court brief — filed recently by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — to support Wichita news organizations’ efforts to view public records in the two pending quadruple homicide cases.
The Wichita Eagle and Wichita’s KWCH-TV Channel 12 have filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Kansas against District Judge Clark V. Owens II, who sealed public records in the case. The news organizations are pursuing the records to investigate how the Sedgwick County, Kan., medical response system handled the cases and to review the general circumstances of the crime sprees.
"Records should be sealed under rare and extraordinary circumstances, and we support the media organizations’ attempts to overturn the court decision," said Ray Marcano, SPJ President and an assistant managing editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "Without those records, the media can’t do its job and inform the public in a case that holds tremendous public interest."
The Eagle and KWCH served open records requests to Sedgwick County, the county’s Department of Emergency Communications and the Wichita Police Department. The news organizations were denied access to the public records when the Sedgwick County district attorney obtained unprecedented orders from the district judge — without ever informing The Eagle or KWCH — to seal every public record that the news organizations had requested.
"The public should be concerned about a judge sealing public records in any case. The fact that this case involves a capital crime and questions that are, literally, life and death, gives even more reason that all the information should be available," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information chairman and special projects coordinator at KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont. "The public deserves to get the full story through the eyes and ears of the media."
The quadruple murder cases for which The Eagle and KWCH are seeking public records occurred in December 2000 within eight days of each other. The second of the two murder cases was followed by the disturbing report that one of the victims laid in the snow for two to three hours while police combed the crime scene of the execution-style shootings and might have been alive during the entire search. Unconfirmed media reports also said that the victim, who later died, was not taken to the hospital until three hours after the first ambulance arrived at the crime scene.
The Eagle and KWCH have sought access to public records to further investigate possible neglect of the county’s medical response system.
"This case presents a classic example of why the media has to be diligent and on its toes to keep records open," said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, of Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. "In the blink of an eye, with no advance warning, this prosecutor convinced the court to embark on a free-wheeling sealing campaign."
Joining SPJ in signing on to the Reporters Committee friend-of-the-court legal brief are the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, the Kansas Press Association and the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
In Kansas, the Society maintains a professional chapter in Wichita and student chapters at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Baker University, Emporia State University and Wichita State University.