Media outlets appeal sealing of search warrants
Posted May 6, 2009
Raleigh, N.C. — Local media outlets covering the high-profile murder last summer of a Cary woman asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals on Wednesday to decide whether search warrants in the case should have been sealed.
Hugh Stevens, an attorney for Capitol Broadcasting Co., and the News & Observer Publishing Co., also asked the three-member panel of judges to make rules for the proper procedure for sealing warrants. Capitol Broadcasting is the parent company of WRAL News.
"We're not here saying you can never seal a search warrant, but the showing on which such a sealing is based must be particularized and specific," Stevens said. "(Authorities must show) there is a reasonable assumption that something bad will happen if they are released."
Wake County prosecutors argued last August that releasing three warrants in the July 12 death of Nancy Cooper could have jeopardized the integrity of the case.
Stevens argued that the state's burden to prove why was not adequate or specific. He also said Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens' orders to seal the warrants should have contained findings of fact and legal conclusions so that the public could understand why they were sealed.
"Judge Stephens should have required the DA to argue precisely why he should seal any of the warrants," Stevens said. "We would certainly argue there was nothing that should have been withheld."
Search warrants are typically of interest because they include affidavits in which investigators explain why they believe the search is justified, possibly including their theories of a case or explaining why a named person is being targeted for the search.
At the time, Cary police were not talking about the case, and investigators had neither arrested nor publicly identified any suspects. Cooper's husband, Brad Cooper, was charged with murder in October.
North Carolina Deputy Attorney General Dale Talbert told the appeals panel that the court used its discretion when deciding to seal the warrants for 60 days.
"There needs to be a balancing act between governmental interests and the public's right of access," Talbert said. "Our state's trial courts have the inherent authority to do anything that would preserve the end result as being just."
"(Stephens) wanted to protect the suspect's right – and at this point, it was Mr. Cooper – to have a fair trial, should he have been charged," Talbert added.