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How should judge protect privacy of Colorado shooting victims?

October 11, 2012|By Jenny Deam
  • A courtroom sketch shows Daniel King, the defense attorney for suspected theater shooter James Holmes, talking to District Judge William B. Sylvester.
A courtroom sketch shows Daniel King, the defense attorney for suspected… (Bill Robles / Associated…)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. – The judge in the mass-murder case against James E. Holmes on Thursday weighed the interests of public transparency in the high-profile case against the privacy and potential safety of victims.

Judge William Sylvester also granted a prosecution motion to add new attempted murder charges against Holmes, bringing the total charges to 166.

Holmes, 24, who attended the hearing, was in the process of withdrawing as a student at the neuroscience department at the University of Colorado Denver when he allegedly opened fire in a crowded Aurora movie theater last July. Twelve people died and at least 58 were wounded.

The preliminary hearing, in which evidence against Holmes would be presented, was rescheduled from November to January. The defense asked for the delay as it said it was still plowing through the thousands of pages in the case.

Public defender Daniel King again hinted in court at the defense strategy, saying Holmes’ attorneys have not “begun to explore the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes’ mental illness.”

In a rare moment of solidarity, both the defense and prosecution attacked the press and a media lawyer, who argued that names of most of the dead and wounded in the July 20 massacre should remain open in court records.

Late last month, Judge William Sylvester granted a motion by Denver media lawyer Steven Zansberg to open 57 previously sealed court files that included the names of victims. The prosecution quickly responded with motions saying that victims' names need to be resealed to prevent further harm to those who had already suffered greatly.

Lisa Teesch Maguire, who is working with the prosecution on behalf of victims, argued that victims, their families, and potential witnesses have been harassed by the news media and feel intimidated by a group of Holmes’ followers. In at least one incident, the prosecution said one victim’s identity was stolen and fraudulently used to file a court motion declaring he was not shot and wanted to be removed from the witness list.

“They are afraid to go in their backyards” because news helicopters fly over and take pictures of their children, said Teesch Maguire, who is the former legal director of the Rocky Mountain Victims Law Center.

She added that Dr. Lynne Fenton, the University of Colorado psychiatrist who treated Holmes, moved out of her house because of the publicity.

Public defender Daniel King told the judge that the news media were using victims as “cannon fodder.”

Zansberg said there needs to be transparency in such a closely followed case and that the prosecution and defense have failed to prove why such secrecy is needed. He not only asked Sylvester to keep the names public but also to reduce the amount of “excessive redaction” in the newly opened files.

He said the documents were so heavily blacked out they were often unreadable and, in essence, still sealed. He said the redacted documents included public information such as news stories, Colorado state statutes, and details already discussed in open court, including Fenton’s name.

Zansberg argued that not only have victims’ names been made public, many victims have willingly been interviewed by the press and it would be an overreach for the court to reseal their names.

Sylvester said he will decide the matter by early next week.

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