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Judge orders key records sealed, others released in Colorado theater rampage

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Tue August 14, 2012
Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting suspect James Holmes appears in court July 23.
Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting suspect James Holmes appears in court July 23.
  • James Holmes, 24, is accused of killing 12 at a movie theater
  • A media coalition, including CNN, has pushed for records to be released
  • A judge rules probable cause affidavits and warrants, among other documents, stay sealed
  • Some motions and orders tied to the crime scene and pretrial publicity can be released

(CNN) -- A Colorado judge on Monday ordered that some key records remain sealed and others be released in the case against James Holmes in last month's deadly rampage at an Aurora movie theater.

Arapahoe County District Chief Judge William Sylvester issued his order in response to requests by members of the media, including CNN, asking that a host of records be made public. The 24-year-old former graduate student is accused of opening fire during a midnight premiere of the latest Batman movie, leaving 12 dead and injuring 58 others.

The prosecution and defense had argued for the documents to remain sealed -- the former to assure the integrity of the continuing investigation, and the latter to protect Holmes' right to a fair trial.

Holmes has been charged with murder and attempted murder, and faces two weapons charges.

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"While the court is cognizant of the important role media petitioners play in informing the public's legitimate interest in knowing the actions taken by government officials responsible for the investigation, prosecution and trial of (the) defendant, the court also will not jeopardize the integrity of the process and the truth-seeking functions of our justice system by authorizing the premature release of records," Sylvester wrote.

The judge reaffirmed his earlier decision barring the University of Colorado from releasing records related to Holmes, who had been a Ph.D. candidate studying neuroscience at the school. He withdrew from the program in June, weeks before the shooting.

Sylvester furthermore cited the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, which states that "records of official actions ... shall be open for inspection," while other records from criminal justice agencies may be released or kept under seal.

Reasoning that they aren't "records of official actions (that) must be disclosed," the judge ordered that probable cause affidavits, subpoenas, arrest warrants and search warrants be suppressed at this time, in the early stages of the investigation.

The case's "register of actions," or docket -- identifying court appearances and filings by the parties involved in the case, including motions and orders -- was ordered released. Sylvester decided that "unrestricted access (to the register) would not pose a substantial probability of harm to the fairness of the trial."

Media urge unsealing of documents in Colorado shooting case

The judge also sided with the media petitioners in ordering the release of 34 motions and orders that have been filed and court orders issued so far in the case. They include documents pertaining to arguments about limiting pretrial publicity, allowing access and preserving the crime scene.

Steven Zansberg, a lawyer representing the media coalition, applauded part of Monday's decision and expressed disappointment over others.

"We are pleased that Judge Sylvester has unsealed 34 documents in the court file that were previously not available to the public, and thereby has brought much needed transparency to this judicial proceeding," Zansberg said via email.

"We are disappointed that the affidavits of probable cause remain under seal at this time, but are hopeful that the court will revisit that issue some time in the not too distant future."

The Arapahoe County judge also issued an order Monday clarifying and essentially upholding a previously issued limited gag order preventing defense lawyers, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies from disclosing certain information to the media.

University of Colorado to review how it handled shooting suspect

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