The Denver Post takes Denver County Judge Melvin Okamoto to task today for sealing the arrest and search warrants for Jon Phillips and Sarah Berry who are charged in connection with the death of emaciated 7 year old Chandler Grafner. The Post believes the public has a right to know what’s in those documents now, under the theory that perhaps the contents would show “serious flaws” in the social services system.
A Denver schools employee told The Post that authorities had made at least four written complaints with Human Services about suspected abuse and neglect of Chandler. Jefferson County social services had contact with Chandler as well. The sealed records could point to serious flaws in the social service system and it’s not impossible to imagine that another child could be at risk while pertinent information languishes under Okamoto’s seal. If the evidence against Phillips and Berry is flimsy or exculpatory, the public ought to know that, too.
The public’s right to know has to be balanced against the defendants’ right to a fair trial. Criminal trials take place in public. Investigations take place in private. If the search turned out to violate the defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights, the evidence obtained would be suppressed. The information in the Affidavit for search and arrest warrants is one sided, the view of the officer making the application. In a high profile case such as this one, you can’t unring the bell. The release of the information before the Judge has ruled it valid would prejudice the potential jury pool and create a presumption of guilt before trial. The police know what information is in the Affidavits. If there is something in them that raises a red flag on the system as a whole, they can request further investigation or ask Social Services to conduct an internal review. There’s no reason for the public to be involved at this stage. These are ugly charges and it is a tragedy that a young boy is dead. But I have a hard time believing the Denver Post wants the information to save other young children as opposed to wanting a scoop to sell more newspapers. Judge Okamoto made the right decision in sealing the records. The truth will come out in time, and it may or may not match what’s in the Phillips and Berry affidavits.