Our View: Fair trial still possible if warrant goes public in Robert Manwill case

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman
The Robert Manwill disappearance became big news – and the Boise Police Department did nothing to discourage it.

The police held frequent and excruciatingly incremental news briefings; several coincided with live local newscasts. The police asked the community to help find clues into the disappearance of the 8-year-old, and 2,300 people turned out.

The unprecedented search effort and the intense public interest will complicate jury selection, if the case of Robert’s murder goes to trial. The rights of the accused must be protected. But this can be done without sealing court documents – a judicial overreach that could embolden police and prosecutors to try to keep other documents out of public view.

Magistrate Judge John Hawley has kept a lid on a key record – a search warrant for the apartment shared by Robert’s mother, Melissa Jenkins, and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick. Saying the document contains accusatory hearsay statements against the two first-degree murder suspects, Hawley said its release would only make it more difficult to find an impartial jury.

It is a strangely reasoned and highly troubling decision.

Search warrants are presumed to be public records. They have been made public prior to other high-profile local trials. Hawley concedes this point, then proceeds to ignore it.

An open court process ensures accountability and holds police and prosecutors to healthy scrutiny. Again, Hawley concedes the point. “Moreover,” he writes, “given the immense concern and emotion evoked by national publicity and extensive media coverage, the public has a strong interest in making sure that appropriate steps have been taken to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Robert’s death.”

And yet, when it came time to uphold the public’s right to know, Hawley failed. His concern for the suspects’ Sixth Amendment rights is valid. His compromise of the public’s First Amendment rights is not.

Nor is it even necessary. Hawley’s curious ruling seems to dismiss the notion that fair-trial concerns are better addressed through the jury selection process. The Statesman argued this point while seeking the release of the warrant.

We have no doubt that it will require a painstaking and costly effort to find an unbiased jury. We have seen this before. Last year, 325 potential jurors were summoned to Boise for the sentencing of confessed child killer Joseph Duncan III.

The parallels are clear. Another highly and appropriately public search for a missing child has evolved into a highly public murder case. It is impossible for a judge to unring this bell. It remains possible to seat a jury – without sealing documents.

After his July 24 disappearance, Treasure Valley residents got to know the smiling face and short life story of young Robert Manwill. Since Aug. 3, when Robert’s body was found in a canal, they have learned precious little about his slaying. The case has been presented before a grand jury – and is based, to some unknown extent, on records Hawley doesn’t want the public to see. A community that deserves answers is left only with new questions.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, e-mail editorial@idahostatesman.com.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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