S.F. Attorney Fights for More JonBenet Coverage

The man accused — mostly by himself — of the 10-year-old murder of JonBenet Ramsey is worried about getting a fair trial given, among other things, the media circus triggered by his admission of involvement in the juvenile beauty queen’s death.

But San Francisco attorney Rachel Matteo-Boehm is fighting for even more coverage of the tabloid story of the summer — she’s trying to unseal records of John Mark Karr’s California child-porn arrest.

The defense worries that Karr’s potential jury pool could be compromised by any number of things. It could be the orange jail jumpsuit he had to wear to his extradition hearing in a Los Angeles County Superior Court today. Deputy Public Defender Haydeh Takasugi told the media that Karr was upset he couldn’t wear civilian clothing.

Then there are records in a Bay Area court dating back to 2001, when the suspect in the murder of 6-year-old JonBenet was a substitute teacher in Sonoma County.

In April 2001, Karr was arrested and charged with five misdemeanor counts of possession of child pornography. When he didn’t show up in court in December, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Those records were sealed — at the request of the Sonoma County sheriff — the same day Karr was arrested in Thailand on Aug. 16.

Media organizations have asked the judge to unseal the arrest warrant and other documents. But Karr’s lawyer, Public Defender John Abrahams, argued that opening them would compromise his client’s right to a fair trial. In a court document filed Aug. 24, Abrahams writes that “while there is a constitutional right of access to court records, a trial judge not only has the discretion, but the affirmative duty to encroach on that right if necessary to protect the accused’s right to a fair trial.”

Matteo-Boehm, a media lawyer with Holme Roberts & Owen, is slated to make the case in Sonoma County Superior Court on Tuesday for why those records should be available for public scrutiny. She’ll be representing media organizations including the Associated Press, NBC Universal Inc., ABC Inc. and The San Francisco Chronicle.

She said it’s a matter of the public’s, and the media’s, First Amendment right, supported by rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court, to follow criminal proceedings. Not only that, there are strict procedures that need to be followed before records can be sealed, procedures that, in this case, she said were ignored.

“It is the contention of our client that the requirement for sealing these documents has not been met,” Matteo-Boehm said. “It’s a very strict test.”

Holme Roberts’ Roger Myers, who is likely to lead the case if it goes to appeal, said keeping records secret only raises suspicion that something is being kept from the public. “The only way for the public to feel the system is working is if it’s open, if the press can have access to the hearings,” Myers said. “The criminal justice system shouldn’t be like poker, where one side is trying to hide its cards.”

Petra Pasternak

 

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