Newspapers lose in attempt to get information in Lakewood police slayings

June 8, 2010 

For the second time in a month, a Pierce County judge has refused a request by The Seattle Times and other news organizations, including The News Tribune, to release more than 2,000 pages of law-enforcement reports and other records about the fatal shootings of four Lakewood police officers last year.

Superior Court Judge Susan K. Serko ruled Monday that releasing the records might jeopardize fair trials for seven people who have been charged with crimes related to the shootings.

Those defendants are relatives or associates of Maurice Clemmons, who shot the officers Nov. 29 in a Parkland coffee shop. Clemmons was shot and killed by a Seattle police 40 hours later.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department planned to disclose the records under a public-disclosure request by The Seattle Times, but attorneys for the defendants objected, citing the fair-trial rights of the defendants.

In a written ruling last month, and again from the bench Monday, Serko said the rights of the accused to a fair trial would be compromised by the release of the records. She told the courtroom Monday that those rights “trump” the Public Disclosure Act.

The Times will appeal the decision, said Managing Editor Suki Dardarian. “No specific facts were offered by any party to support keeping this volume of documents secret,” she said. “Every day, courts find ways to protect the public’s rights while also protecting the defendants’ rights. We don’t believe that was done in this case.”

Clemmons’ sister, LaTanya Clemmons, is on trial in Pierce County Superior Court on charges of rendering criminal assistance to Dorcus Allen, who is charged with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder as the alleged getaway driver for Maurice Clemmons. The other defendants are charged with helping Maurice Clemmons elude police during the manhunt.

Attorneys for The Times filed a written objection to Serko’s initial May 20 order, maintaining the court erred by finding that a “mere possibility of additional pretrial publicity justifies denying access to records at issue.”

A “generalized fear” of publicity is insufficient under Washington state law to “implicate the defendants’ fair trial rights,” they wrote.

The Times’ attorneys noted that neither the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office nor the Sheriff’s Office has argued that disclosing the records would impede law-enforcement efforts, and the records act doesn’t require the judicial process to run its course before disclosure.

In a May 28 letter to the court, an attorney for The News Tribune, The Associated Press and television stations KING, KIRO and KOMO joined with The Times in objecting to Serko’s order.

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