With all grudging respect due to Arapahoe County District Court Chief Judge William Sylvester, don’t you hush me.
Sylvester is running the trial of accused Aurora movie-massacre shooter James Holmes. Like just about everybody from the Aurora area associated with the aftermath of Holmes’ cruel rampage at the Century Aurora 16 theater on July 20, Sylvester has made it clear he’s a top-notch and capable part of the local government.
Ever since the farcical O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, judges routinely tell police and investigators to keep their mouths shut about high-profile cases in the interest of ensuring that defendants, as well as victims, get a fair trial.
Fair is an interesting word in the case of Holmes. Just minutes after the shooting it became undisputable that Holmes was the gunman responsible for the slaughter. The only unanswered questions left are: How did he amass such an arsenal, and what made him do such a vile thing?
Now in Sylvester’s case, “fair” means finding a pool of jurors that have open minds about the details of the case against Holmes. It’s TV-courtroom fiction that has lawyers looking for 12 people living under rocks that haven’t heard anything about the melee at the Aurora cinema.
In Holmes’ case, his lawyers see “fair” as a pool of people willing to agree that Holmes was too crazy to know what he was really doing. That’s going to be a hard job since he obviously kept it together for a long, long time to amass his armory, set up an extensive array of booby traps in his apartment, and pull off a well-orchestrated rampage.
So here’s the problem: Everyone is still shocked by the obscenity of what Holmes did. The stories of whom he murdered and how they died, and the stories of those he maimed, are astonishing. And public officials are afraid of two things: first, of revealing some kind of culpability in the disaster; second, of somehow throwing a wrench in the legal process of convicting Holmes for what he did. What the courts, the police, the prosecutors, the school, the city and every other government official has lost sight of is Colorado’s powerful open-government laws, which cover courts just like they do city halls.
These laws weren’t enacted to satisfy prurient interests in murders or government contracts. State lawmakers have long known that the public has a need to know, as well as a right to know everything the government does.
Of course there are exceptions, and there are conflicts. Sylvester must balance Holmes’ right to get a fair trial with the state’s insistence that every part of the trial and case be open to the public.
But what’s happened is that city, university, police and other officials won’t talk about anything to do with the massacre, citing Sylvester’s gag order. That’s a serious and potentially fatal problem. There are worrisome questions about why it took so long to get many of the wounded to area hospitals because of problems getting rescuers where they needed to be just after the shooting. City officials say Sylvester’s gag order prevents them from talking about it. The city, publicly, needs to explore now how to prevent similar problems in the future, and apparently it can’t do that.
Likewise, University of Colorado Denver officials know full well they’re coming under scrutiny about who knew what about Holmes, when, and why they did or didn’t do something about it. They, too, say they’re unable to offer anything to the public about these questions.
This bad gag has even moved into the realm of the inane. When questioned this week by Aurora Sentinel reporters about the future of a makeshift memorial, Aurora History Museum officials say they can’t talk because of Sylvester’s order.
You don’t have to be a Harvard law grad to see that talking about whether the local history museum collects teddy bears at the shrine will do nothing to ensure that Holmes gets a fair trial. City officials don’t see that right now.
With everyone nearly ready to faint from the fear of doing something wrong here, Sylvester needs to clarify what he means with his order, and local city and school officials need to start talking.
Reach editor Dave Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-750-7555.