Monterey Court unsealing Kristin Smart records after motion by SLO Tribune-led media coalition
The presiding judge in the Kristin Smart murder trial has now ruled that the majority of the records in the case can be unsealed, and that process is underway right now. A media coalition led by the San Luis Obispo Tribune filed the motion to get those records unsealed, and they hope to get them publicly accessible online next.
The trial for the highly-publicized and long-running case is ongoing at the Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas.
The trial was moved up to Monterey County after a SLO County judge ruled its widespread public attention here would not make for an impartial trial. That concern over media coverage may be the reason why most records in this case have been sealed until now.
But SLO Tribune courts reporter Chloe Jones, who started the media coalition, said it’s really not clear why.
"It's just unclear as to why so many of the sealing orders were granted. So that's not something I can exactly speak to, but I am very curious," she said.
Jones started the media coalition, which includes the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and the Associated Press along with the SLO Tribune. They filed the legal motion on July 14, and Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe moved to unseal most of the records on July 29. A hearing with the media coalition happened on August 5.
Jones said the media coalition argues that the prior sealing of all these records was unusual, unjustified and a violation of California law.
"The news coalition argue that this gag order was being used to obstruct constitutional access to this case," Jones said. "The judge is now reviewing the gag order and is going to modify it so that it's narrowly tailored and cannot be used as a blanket seal."
Jones said the media coalition feels the access issue is a barrier to public knowledge of records related to evidence and legal actions in this case. She said it’s made her own reporting harder.
"There was a day where I went to the computer room in Salinas during a short recess, and I wanted to check on records to update the database that I have," she said. "And I went to the computer room, and there's only two computers in there, and both were taken."
That meant her reporting had to wait.
"I couldn't access the records in the one-hour break that we had, because those two computers were taken. And so then that put back my reporting, because of course had to go back to the courtroom," Jones said.
Jones said the next step for the coalition is to push for free online access to these records, so setbacks like that don't happen for both journalists and the public. Some documents, though, are or will be partially redacted.
"[That's] various reasons, whether it's personal information, sexual assault survivor names, that kind of stuff. Those are in the process of being redacted so that they can be publicly available without violating individual rights or victims rights," Jones said.
Right now, the main way to access these records is by physically requesting them at the courthouse. They can also be requested by mail, but there’s a cost to that, and so Jones said the most affordable way to do it right now is in person.
"The most financially frugal way is probably going physically into the courthouse. But of course, not everybody can do that."
So, Jones said the coalition is pushing for this case to be deemed “extraordinary” by the courts. That’s not an assessment of the case’s social impact or moral value, but rather a legal term that has to do with the strain on court staff to handle in-person records requests.
"Not only does it put a burden on the public, it puts a burden on the court staff, because they're going to have to be dealing with all these people coming into their computer rooms, or all these mail requests for all of these documents," she said.
Paul and Ruben Flores are charged with murder and accessory to murder, respectively, for their alleged role in Cal Poly SLO student Kristin Smart’s dissappearance in 1996. Both men were present at Thursday’s hearing, according to the SLO Tribune.
Until this development, nearly all of this case’s records were sealed, meaning journalists and the public weren’t able to even know what the hundreds of records dealt with. Jones said the public will have much greater access if the records go online for free.
"That could be decided on in a future hearing. There is a hearing on September 2 to go through the documents that the defense and prosecution want to be remained sealed, and to rule on whether those deserve to be sealed or not."
Jones said there’s also an August 25 deadline for both legal teams to submit a list of which records they want to remain sealed, which the court will consider.
It’s not clear if the September 2 hearing will see the case deemed “extraordinary” and the records released online, but the coalition says that’s a critical public and media access issue in this case.