Journalists Challenge Sealed Federal Crime Cases


A national journalists’ organization is challenging the apparently widespread sealing of criminal cases in the federal trial court in Washington, D.C. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that an aide to the court’s chief judge, Thomas F. Hogan, said that he and Hogan estimate “30 to 40 percent of the criminal cases that come over here are sealed – and that’s at the motion of the prosecutors.” The official, Shelly Snook, said closures occur mainly in drug cases where prosecutors want to conceal the cooperation of some defendants.

After the report, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote Attorney General John Ashcroft that “if the estimate attributed to Chief Justice Hogan is even remotely accurate, it raises serious doubts about whether federal prosecutors are adhering to the Justice Department’s established policy on open judicial proceedings.” The policy, in effect since 1980, says closure will be justified in “very few cases.” The journalists said “there is no plausible justification for conducting such a large percentage of the business of the federal criminal courts in secret, whether in drug cases or other criminal matters.”

The data on the closures were disclosed in a report on a year-old indictment of eight Colombians in the kidnapping and murder of a Missouri oil worker in Ecuador. The indictment remains the only public record in the case. Even the docket is secret. A recent hearing was conducted in a courtroom whose windows were closed from public view.

The Post-Dispatch said federal authorities call the charges against the Colombians “terrorist offenses.”

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee, said that the government can achieve its objectives without the blanket sealing of records in a case, which is done for “administrative convenience.” Said Leslie: “If they don’t want others to know about cooperation, they can close individual hearings or seal individual documents, but that should never justify a complete closure of the case and a removal from the docket.”

The Missourian was working on an oil rig in Ecuador near the Colombian border in October 2000 when he and nine other workers were kidnapped. After months of ransom negotiations, the kidnappers murdered him in January 2001. The oil companies reached a $13 million ransom deal with the kidnappers, and the remaining hostages were freed on March 1, 2001.

Miami defense attorney Roy Black, who represents former Medellin drug cartel leader Fabio Ochoa, says the courts improperly sealed the court files of a Colombian cocaine trafficker whose name came up frequently in the case against Ochoa. “Our position is, under the First Amendment, it may be they can seal parts of the record, but they have to put something in the public docket to show that there is a sealing,” Black said. “They have to have something in the public record to alert the public that a sealing occurred. Otherwise, the public has no way of knowing it and contesting it.”

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