Three high profile criminal cases have hit Tracy in the past six months, and each time local judges have sealed court records and issued gag orders, depriving the community and media of information that would normally be public, reports Mike Martinez of the San Joaquin Herald.
Tracy has made headlines for the arrests of:
- • Melissa Huckaby, accused of kidnapping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu;
• Peter Chi, a cosmetic surgeon accused of inappropriately touching dozens of his patients, and
• four residents, accused of torturing a teenager.
When it comes to balancing a defendant’s right to a fair trial against the right of a public trial, judges in San Joaquin County have sided with the defense in all three cases.
“It’s a struggle to keep the courts transparent in any well-publicized case,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a First Amendment advocacy group. “It’s a pervasive and continuing problem with the obvious irony — as long as no one is paying attention to the case, the records are open. As soon as there is some sense the community may be interested in the case, the facts are kept from the community.”
Francke said there is no consequence for a court that improperly seals a public record, other than having the decision reversed by a higher court.