Colorado’s vast judicial system has a dirty secret.
In fact, thanks to some luck and intrepid investigation work by Denver Post reporter David Migoya, we now know that Colorado courts — including those serving Aurora — have more than 6,700 dirty secrets.
A stunning Denver Post investigation revealed last week that the Colorado court system hides thousands of court cases from the public, mostly at the whim of prosecutors and judges.
The Post stumbled onto the story by doing what newspaper reporters do all the time: sit in court.
As an important aside, if you question the value of journalism to you and your nation, it’s this kind of work that makes it clear a nation without healthy newspapers is called “North Korea.”
While covering a metro-area court case, a reporter noticed that another murder case before the court had no record of scheduling. It had no record at all. A cursory inquiry turned into a bombshell investigation.
Colorado courts regularly “suppress” entire court cases for the sole purpose of keeping them from the public, the Denver Post investigation revealed.
No freaking kidding.
Migoya’s story reveals that Colorado is apparently alone in this repugnant and dangerous scam.
Every state allows for cases to be sealed, including Colorado. That requires some type of hearing based on serious and compelling reasons: national security, exoneration and endangering the lives of witnesses comes to mind.
That’s not what’s going on here. The Denver Post story revealed that judges regularly make not just parts of a case secret, but the entire case with only an instant suppression order. The investigation shows courts have done this for the convenience of prosecutors or police, or because a judge thinks a case might be controversial or because they just pretty much just feel like it.
No oversight. No recourse. No accountability.
No freaking way.
Lots of these cases hail from Aurora. The 2014 Taco Bell parking lot shooting here in Aurora that Sentinel reporter Brandon Johansson covered? Suppressed. We were able to reveal what the case was about only because of police sources and diligent work.
If you were to ask about the disposition of that case and those convicted of murder, too bad.
The Denver Post investigation revealed that, of the thousands of secret cases, 66 are felony cases still closed — even though there have been convictions and sentences. These cases include homicides and sex crimes.
The most shocking part of this story is that it’s happening in Colorado. This is a state that often leads the way in open government and accountability.
Not in the police and court systems, though. Colorado barely escaped an attempt during the last legislative session to hide coroner records of some juvenile deaths. Regularly, state open records laws are under assault by sometimes well-meaning but misguided lawmakers, and more often, people, agencies or groups that would prefer to prevent public scrutiny.
Police, including those in Aurora and Denver, are shoddy at best at making public what they do and whom they do it to. Far too often, police and prosecutors throw the “case integrity” card in hiding details or entire investigations, and it’s dangerous.
But this? This is a criminal justice travesty.
There is no compelling or justifiable reason to ever, ever suppress an entire case.
While there are valid arguments to hide the identity of certain witnesses, police agents or maybe even a single particular piece of evidence in a matter, those requests must be weighed carefully and independently of the case.
But there is never a valid reason to hide an entire court case from the public. Our criminal justice system, our very structure of government in America is based on the fact that it is open to the public and available to public scrutiny.
An Orwellian secret criminal justice system is anathema to every founding principle of American and Colorado government.
This is the clandestine stuff of banana republics and Iran. This has got to stop now.
Gov. John Hickenlooper should immediately convene a committee to determine what can be done administratively to first stop the practice of hiding court cases from the public, reveal all cases that have been hidden, and make those cases available to the public.
Both the state House and Senate leaders should immediately convene working groups to create legislation to ban the case suppression scheme. And if any information or components of a case are to be concealed from the public, there must be a system of oversight and scrutiny to prevent easy corruption.
Police and prosecutors regularly argue they should be allowed to work in secret, helping them to get the bad guy at all costs.
No. That’s not what American justice is about, at least not yet. Prosecutors and police power must be limited and regularly scrutinized. They must have permission from courts to usurp your rights. To think that courts are complicit with police and prosecutors, rather than being the critical check they were designed to be, is horrifying.
In just a few weeks, candidates for governor, district attorneys, state attorney general, and the vast majority of state lawmakers will be looking for your vote.
Make this issue the touchstone of your decision. If your candidate won’t support ending this ghastly sham, find one who will.
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