Prosecutors' refusal to release a letter pertinent to a murder case has spurred a showdown between the Salt Lake County attorney's office and local media organizations.
The Society of Professional Journalists, on behalf of the Deseret News and eight other news organizations, has filed a motion in 3rd District Court accusing the attorney's office of failing to comply with the First Amendment by denying access to a document admitted in open court.At issue is a page of a letter 15-year-old Anja White is said to have written to her father a week before she was shot to death. The unfinished letter apparently explained how frightened she was of her brother, Edward White, and referred to his alleged threats to kill her and the rest of her family.
Edward White, 19, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder and is scheduled to stand trial June 16.
Portions of the letter were quoted and discussed during a preliminary hearing in early March. And even though the letter was entered and accepted into evidence by 3rd Circuit Judge Philip Palmer, the Salt Lake County attorney's office has repeatedly refused to release it to the public.
After reading the letter and listening to testimony, Palmer bound White over to district court to stand trial. At the same time, he returned the letter to the prosecutors.
"Our position is that when the document was withdrawn, it ceased being in the court's domain," said County Attorney David Yocom.
But media attorney Kathryn H. Snedaker said the letter became a public document once prosecutors chose to officially enter it as evidence for the judge to consider in making his decision. Returning the letter to the attorney's office was simply a courtesy to help them prepare the case for trial.
"The information the decisionmaker has before him or her is information the public has a right to review," Snedaker said. "We need to have a right of access to that information to see that government is functioning properly."
If the court process is not conducted in the open, then the press has no way to perform its watchdog duties to monitor the government and make sure it functions in a proper and ethical way, Snedaker added.
Yocom said prosecutors' national code of ethics prohibits them from releasing certain information before trial that might prejudice a jury.
"We don't want to make the decision that would subject us to reprimand of the Bar . . . or affect his (White's) right to a fair trial," Yocom said.
In Snedaker's memorandum, however, she states adverse pretrial publicity does not inevitably lead to an unfair trial.
Third District Judge Anne Stirba has scheduled a May 6 hearing to discuss the issue.
The Society of Professional Journalists is representing the Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press, Standard-Examiner, KSL-TV/AM, KTVX, KUTV and KALL.
White's defense attorney, Frances Palacios, has also indicated she will fight the media's motion.