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Media outlets appeal sealing of search warrants

Posted May 6, 2009

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— 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.


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  • southern wisdom May 6, 2009

    If the media would establish a pattern of reporting facts, not opinions, (under the disguise of journalism) the courts would be more willing to release information.

  • You are Funny May 6, 2009

    I would argue that media and public don't really need to know those details until the trial begins because the media tends to try to spin facts to suggest things...How can one have a fair and impartial trial that way?

  • time4real May 6, 2009

    hey media outlets, it's NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!!! Ambulance chasers!

  • Lone Voice in the Wilderness May 6, 2009

    A public trial, where the public has access to the evidence and view to the proceedings, is a good way to preserve the integrity of the judicial process. I agree with the lawsuit. I think everyone understands that there are warrants that should be sealed. But sealing of public documents should be justified.

    What is at stake here is the fair trial of the defendant, and justice for the victim. Only in a fair, impartial, and public legal process can we have both.