Media push to unseal Warren Jeffs petition

A media coalition, including The Salt Lake Tribune, is asking a 5th District judge to unseal a secret petition and order issued in the prosecution of polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs.

The group also wants Judge James L. Shumate to hold hearings on any future moves to close public access to proceedings and records in the case.

The action follows a sealed petition and order filed in the case on April 3 with no description or explanation. A court spokeswoman later told the Tribune the petition was filed by Jeffs’ attorneys.

The coalition, represented by attorney David C. Reymann, includes The Associated Press, KSL-TV, The Spectrum, Deseret Morning News, the Utah Media Coalition and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Sealed filings are commonly related to evidence or medical issues. But in a letter delivered to Shumate on Wednesday, Reymann said Utah law also allows for notice and hearings before closing criminal proceedings, including those involving mental competency.

The media want verification that the records were properly sealed. The burden of proof for sealing them rests with those who had them sealed.

Reymann said the U.S. Supreme Court and Utah Supreme Court have upheld a presumptive right to pretrial proceedings and documents – a right that is particularly important given public policy against trying an incompetent person.

The sealed filings in the Jeffs’ case came a week after a court hearing in which he appeared emaciated, lethargic and to have difficulty tracking proceedings.

The test for closing a criminal proceeding is rigorous enough that it is rarely met, Reymann said.

“There is no doubt that this case has generated considerable statewide and national interest and extensive news coverage,” he wrote Shumate. “In light of that attention, the public interest in witnessing and obtaining information about these proceedings is compelling, and access is necessary to foster public trust in the judicial process and to protect the constitutional interests at stake.”

Jeffs faces two state felony charges of being an accomplice to rape for allegedly conducting a 2001 marriage to which the 14-year-old bride protested.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday April 19, 2007.
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