All cases, even death penalty trials, must remain public

In late August 2011, three individuals were shot at the residence of Nathaniel Castellanos. Among the three victims were Corey A. Walker, 21, and Megan McIntosh, 25, both students at Laramie County Community College, and Amber McGuire, 23. Castellanos has been charged with the murder of the two college students and attempted murder of the third, who was transferred to a Denver hospital in critical condition.

According to Castellanos, it was a drug deal “gone bad.” When first questioned, Castellanos said the shooter was a large black man who ran from the house after shooting the victims. However, the gun used to shoot the three individuals was found in Castellanos’ kitchen sink and had already been cleaned by the time police discovered it.

The head prosecuting attorney, Michael Blonigen, has requested the death penalty for Castellanos.

Because of Blonigen’s familial relations, the defense attorney, Robert Rose, filed a motion for the case to be dismissed based on the assertion that Blonigen was “erroneously appointed.”

Rose also requested that Blonigen be removed from the case and for the case files to be sealed until the judge reached a decision on Rose’s motion.

Blonigen has a nephew who worked at Mingle’s Bar, which Castellanos was said to frequent, and another nephew who was previously married to the woman who called 911 after she heard gunshots at Castellanos’ residence.

On Jan. 18, District Court Judge Peter Arnold denied both of Rose’s motions; however, the files were kept unavailable to the public until Jan. 25 because Arnold was still in the process of drafting orders for the case.

The information being concealed involved Blonigen’s reasoning for pursuing the death penalty including that Castellanos’ actions created the risk of death to two or more people; he was likely to commit more violence; McIntosh’s murder was especially cruel, and Castellanos committed murder to avoid arrest.

In another development, state public defender Diane Lozano informed Arnold that lawyers in her office would represent Castellanos in the future because they have experience in death penalty cases. The trial scheduled for March was postponed by Arnold.

According to the Wyoming Press Association’s (WPA) attorney Bruce Moats, the judge may not technically be sealing the files but only following the court’s process of holding the file until he makes his changes.

The Associated Press has argued the files should never have been sealed.

In a WPA panel discussion in Laramie Jan. 14, AP Denver bureau chief Jim Clarke said, “You need to have justice done in the daytime, not under secrecy.”

A motion to seal case files is rarely a necessity, Moats said. There is a procedure to follow when filing the motion, he said, and rarely does he see it done correctly across Wyoming.

Clarke argued how does it help the defendant if the case is done in secrecy?

Moats said even if Blonigen were removed from the case, he would argue there would still not be a good enough reason to seal the case files.

The case is still of public interest, and Wingspan believes a serious case such as this should have the records available to the public.

The last death penalty case in Wyoming was in 1976, so it is rare in this state. With such an ultimate punishment, the public must be concerned and wants to be kept informed.

The sixth amendment gives all defendants the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of their peers. Sealing court records prevents public knowledge of the case and degrades the foundations of the American court system.

America’s open-court system was inspired by horrific events that date to before the country was even founded.

In 17th century England, star chambers were court sessions held in secret. Although star chambers were established to ensure laws were fairly enforced against prominent citizens, they became political tools misused by the English monarchy and courts, especially by King Henry VII. If Henry didn’t like an opponent or felt his policies were being opposed, he could use star chambers to try his enemies in secrecy.

Essentially, star chambers were used to make dissidents disappear without officials being held accountable.

Because of these practices, America’s court system was created to be open and public. Open courts are critical to our society, and even considering keeping court records closed as long as Castellanos’ case records were goes against our core principles. To think Wyoming courts would try to put a defendant to death without keeping the public informed is both frightening and unconstitutional.

Perhaps these actions were done with the best of intentions, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

Consider the case of Timothy Masters, a resident of Fort Collins, Colo., who was convicted of first degree murder in 1987. Masters lost two appeals but was granted a new trial in 2007.

In the re-trial, it was discovered DNA found on the victim was not Masters’ DNA and substantial evidence from the case had not been made available to Masters’ defense team. Masters’ conviction was overturned because of these revelations, and the charges against him were dropped.

This case was open to the public, and yet these errors still slipped past the public’s attention and the system.

If such errors can be made in an open case, certainly, such risks are exponential in a sealed case. Closing a case such as Masters’ to the public would have been a mistake, and the same applies to Castellanos’ case.

In order to maintain a fair system, the public must be aware of the government’s actions. By closing Castellanos’ case for such a long time, Arnold allowed the government to operate in darkness, preventing the public from obtaining information about a critical case. However, such conditions do not accommodate the democratic system and, therefore, do not accommodate the American system.

AP’s Clarke said state officials in Wyoming are simply not being held accountable.

As an official, Arnold must be aware of the implications and possible consequences of such actions and should be aware of what actions are constitutional.

As Wyoming residents, the public must be aware secrecy has no place in the American system and ensure such cases are not allowed to be sealed.

As an LCCC community, we urge the case involving the deaths of our two students remain open.

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