Our view: DA needs to stop impeding transparency | SteamboatToday.com
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Our view: DA needs to stop impeding transparency

At issue

The Routt County DA requested that arrest affidavits in the Ed Zimmerman murder case be sealed, and this week a judge ruled that they be made public

Our view

The DA needs to stop trying to circumvent the public’s right to know and operate his office more transparently

It’s been more than three months since Ed Zimmerman was murdered, and the public still knows very little about the facts surrounding the homicide. The reason? The arrest affidavits in the case against the accused, Lucas and Kristen Johnson, were sealed upon the request of Routt County District Attorney Brett Barkey, and he isn’t answering requests for additional information about the case.

At issue

The Routt County DA requested that arrest affidavits in the Ed Zimmerman murder case be sealed, and this week a judge ruled that they be made public



Our view

The DA needs to stop trying to circumvent the public’s right to know and operate his office more transparently

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The sealing of court documents, which routinely are open and part of the public record in a criminal case, is a tactic Barkey seems determined to pursue in an effort to limit pre-trial publicity. While we understand Barkey’s desire to effectively try his cases, we think the practice of sealing documents filed in an open court of law in support of arrests involving serious crimes needs to end.

The public has a right to know the basic facts about a crime that has occurred in the community. Arrest affidavits are used to support the arrest of individuals. These documents present facts of cases and demonstrate probable cause for arresting those accused and charging them with a crime.

These documents, in our opinion, must remain open to the public and the press as a way to ensure that individuals are afforded due process. From a Constitutional perspective, these affidavits are public documents that protect U.S. citizens from being arrested and jailed without friends and family being aware of the circumstances. That may not seem applicable in the 21st century, but that is the constitutional underpinning of arrest affidavits in our court system.

We also understand that as the county’s lead prosecutor Barkey is often prohibited from commenting on ongoing investigations. It is routine for reporters to contact prosecutors and get a “no comment” response and be directed to court records for information about a case.

This is a reasonable response to press inquiries, but sealing court documents and seeking to withhold records that are open under Colorado law is not. Barkey tried a similar maneuver last year to withhold the arrest affidavit and autopsy report in the case of 3-year-old Austin Davis, who died when his mother, Meghan McKeon, left him unattended in a West Steamboat cabin. In that case, judges James Garrecht and Michael O’Hara ruled in favor of the newspaper and released the records.

Last Wednesday, Judge Shelley Hill held a hearing after the Steamboat Pilot & Today requested the arrest affidavits filed in the Lucas and Kristen Johnson case be unsealed. At the hearing, Barkey and the Johnsons’ defense attorneys presented the same arguments — protect the ongoing investigation and limit pre-trial publicity — as they’ve made in the past. The arguments weren’t valid then, and they aren’t valid now. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Hill reiterated her court’s commitment to transparency and, on Tuesday, she issued an order to unseal the affidavits and make them public.

The residents of Routt County depend on their newspaper to provide them with information about what’s happening in the community, and it’s essential the Steamboat Pilot & Today have fair access to information that is filed in court, that this information is routinely open and information is only sealed by a judge under extreme circumstances.

Both of our local district judges and the county court judge have issued rulings that support openness and transparency in court proceedings. We hope Barkey has heard that message loud and clear.

As an elected official who serves the residents of Routt County, Barkey would be well advised to abide by the state’s open records law and stop trying to circumvent its intent by seeking to seal court documents.


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