Rob Douglas: A child in our community died
April 10, 2014
Steamboat Springs resident Meghan McKeon has been charged in Routt County Court with the most incomprehensible crime a parent can commit — child abuse resulting in the death of her 3-year-old son, Austin Davis. At the request of the District Attorney, the arrest warrant and the affidavit in support of the arrest warrant have been sealed by the court.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today has filed a motion with the court requesting that the warrant and affidavit be unsealed in order to protect the federal and state constitutional rights "of the people to receive information through the news media concerning the workings of the criminal justice system, as well as the right of the news media to gather and report that information."
In summarizing its legal stance, the newspaper's motion argues:
"To justify the continued sealing of any document in this criminal case file, the party seeking such sealing must present direct, non-conclusory evidence that satisfies the standard for sealing articulated by Colorado's Supreme Court in Star Journal Publishing (Corp. v. County Court) — that public disclosure of the information in the court file poses a 'clear and present danger' to the fairness of a trial and that no reasonable alternative means adequately exists to protect the defendant's fair trial right. No such showing has been, or can be, made on the facts of this case."
While the District Attorney has yet to respond to the newspaper's motion — the deadline is Wednesday — McKeon's defense attorney, Colorado Deputy State Public Defender Sheryl Uhlmann, who has also filed motions under seal, has filed a response arguing that the clear and present danger to the fairness of a trial standard does not apply to sealing documents. Citing case law, Uhlmann states that the correct legal standard is "a simple balancing test to evaluate whether 'the public's right of access is outweighed by competing interests.'"
Arguing that the warrant and affidavit should remain sealed, Uhlmann states:
"There are myriad competing interests at stake here that outweigh the public and media's right of access to the affidavit, including Ms. McKeon's right to a fair trial, the parties' ongoing investigation, and legitimate concerns for the safety of Ms. McKeon and Austin Davis' father, Tyler Davis."
Citing comments made by readers on the Steamboat Pilot & Today's Facebook page that she believes are threatening, and arguing that the sealed affidavit "contains previously undisclosed information" that could harm a fair trial, Uhlmann repeatedly emphasizes concerns for the safety of McKeon and Davis in her pleading.
"Unsealing of the affidavit will result in escalating harassment and threats to Ms. McKeon and Tyler Davis. … Under Colorado law, Tyler Davis is a victim who has the right to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity, and to be free from intimidation, harassment, or abuse. … Leaving the arrest affidavit sealed will protect Ms. McKeon and Tyler Davis from increased threats based on new media coverage."
While it's Judge James Garrecht who will weigh the legal arguments for and against unsealing the arrest warrant and affidavit, it's Suzanne Schlicht, publisher of the Steamboat Pilot & Today, who best articulated why the newspaper is taking legal action to unseal the warrant and affidavit for the felony child abuse charges McKeon now faces (McKeon was initially arrested on a misdemeanor that has since been dropped by the District Attorney).
"A child who lived in our community died, and his mother has been charged with a serious felony in connection with the death," Schlicht said. "Members of the public deserve to know the information that justifies the new charges."
At a time when traditional news organizations are struggling to survive in a media environment increasingly dominated and diluted by blogs, Twitter and Facebook, Schlicht's words — "A child who lived in our community died" — illuminate why an economically healthy and vigilant press is essential to a free and open society.
After all, whether you agree or disagree with the Steamboat Pilot & Today's decision to legally challenge the sealing of the arrest warrant and affidavit in the McKeon case, you should be thankful that you live in a community with a newspaper willing to fight on behalf of the public's constitutional right to know what the government seeks to hide.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com