By Marisa Demarco
— UPDATE: Four of six motions were made available to the public at a hearing on Wednesday, May 22.
Lawyers representing local media appeared in court last week to make a stand against the sealing of pre-trial motions in the case.
The trial is slated to begin in June. Chavez, a former Albuquerque Police Department officer, is facing two felony charges relating to the death of his ex-wife: murder and tampering with evidence.
One court document was made available to the public during the May 15 hearing. Judge George Eichwald also reversed his position and lifted a blanket seal he had ordered on all future motions filed before the trial begins.
Another six sealed court documents were considered on Wednesday, May 22, after lawyers combed through hundreds of questionnaires given to potential jurors. Defense attorney David Serna said a random sampling of 47 questionnaires showed 24 people had a fixed, negative opinion of the case. He read examples out loud one by one.
There’s also a danger that people who hadn’t heard of the case when they filled out the questionnaire went home and Googled it, he said, dredging up biased characterizations and misleading information about Chavez.
Serna blamed extensive media coverage for the jury selection problem, citing scores of reports that appeared on television news outlets around the state and in the Albuquerque Journal. This, he said, was justification for making pre-trial motions secret and for closing further hearings on the topic.
Eichwald denied Serna’s request to close the hearings. Last month the judge accused the prosecution of rousing reporters to cover the case. “Every time we have a hearing, your office calls the media,” he said. Valencia County Assistant District Attorney Bryan McKay denied doing so.
The Albuquerque Journal, the Valencia County News-Bulletin, the Associated Press, KOAT, KRQE and KOB fought the secrecy measures Eichwald ordered on April 22. Media attorneys argued the defense has a constitutional burden to prove there is a good reason to prevent the public from accessing records relating to a criminal case. “The public has a special interest in this case; the first-degree murder and evidence tampering charges being brought by the state against a police officer,” their motion stated.
They also pointed out that the sealed records repeat information that’s part of a civil lawsuit against Chavez, so those accusations are already out there. Finally, they said, the defense has to show there aren’t other methods available—such as extensive juror vetting—to protect a fair trial.
The trial was moved from Valencia County to Sandoval County in December for that purpose. But, said Serna, local media outlets are far-reaching, and their reports are broadcast all over the state.
Attorney Charles Peifer argued that there’s a difference between potential jurors who’ve heard of the case and those who’ve formed an opinion about it. Concern that press coverage will taint the jury pool is pure speculation, he said. “The finding should be that there are less restrictive means available,” he concluded.
The motion also states that sealing court records without justification is a violation of the First Amendment: “Without access to court proceedings and documents, the public has no way of knowing how courts are carrying out the administration of justice that is fundamental to American government.”