September 15, 2010 in City

Paper seeks shooting records of killed Lakewood officers

Defendants want Clemmons material withheld
Curt Woodward Associated Press
 

OLYMPIA – Washington’s largest newspaper has asked the state Supreme Court to release police files from last year’s fatal shootings of four police officers, saying there’s no evidence the documents would jeopardize fair trials for six people accused of helping the shooter.

But one of those defendants strongly disputed the Seattle Times’ argument Tuesday, saying the constitutional right to a fair trial far outweighs any right to public access of government records under state law.

The case centers on the November killing of four Lakewood police officers gunned down during a coffee break. The shooter, ex-convict Maurice Clemmons, was shot and killed two days later by a Seattle officer amid a massive manhunt.

The Times is seeking more than 2,000 pages of police records from the case. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was ready to turn over the reports, photos and other documents, but the defendants accused of aiding Clemmons requested the material be withheld from public view.

A Pierce County Superior Court judge agreed, finding that public access to the files could hurt the defendants’ chances for fair trials. Another judge later sealed records from the completed trial of Clemmons’ sister, LaTanya Clemmons, who was sentenced to five years in prison for giving criminal assistance.

The Times and other news organizations objected, and the battle is now at the state Supreme Court. It’s not clear when the court might rule, but decisions typically take several weeks or more to develop.

On Tuesday, Times attorney Eric Stahl said Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Serko’s ruling to keep the police files secret improperly relied on the mere chance that the information could have a future effect on a fair trial.

“There is no evidence that discussion of any of the records at issue – much less all of them – would imperil the fairness of the trial proceeding,” Stahl said.

The judge should have shown an effort to weigh the defendants’ rights with the public’s right to track government actions, Stahl argued.

In response, an attorney for one man accused of aiding Clemmons said Serko was correct in carefully guarding against any possible harm to a defendant’s constitutional fair trial right.

“They’re not asking this court to order Judge Serko to engage in a process she didn’t engage in,” attorney Greg Link said. “She engaged in a process. They clearly don’t agree with the outcome of that process.”

Link was representing Darcus Allen, who has pleaded not guilty to four counts of aggravated first-degree murder, which could carry the death penalty. Allen is accused of driving Maurice Clemmons to and from the crime scene.

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