Views from Kansas: Why secretly seal records?

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

The man accused of gunning down two Wyandotte County deputies last year had two previous cases against him involving violent crimes dismissed by the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office — which then appeared to want those cases erased from memory.

The Star discovered that dozens of documents in two previous cases against accused murderer Antoine Fielderhad been inexplicably sealed from public view. Worse yet, when initially asked, the Wyandotte County Clerk of District Court office could not explain how the files were sealed — or on whose request and approval.

The answer, as we learned days later, is that the files had been sealed unilaterally at the request of District Attorney Mark Dupree’s office– without a required order by a judge.

To his credit, Wyandotte County Chief Judge Robert Burns investigated the matter after we brought it to his attention. He later ordered the documents unsealed.

It’s impossible for the public to know which documents had been sealed in the two cases, but Burns said the roughly 50 documents sealed in just one of the two cases concerned normally routine matters such as subpoenas, motions by lawyers and rulings by judges.

Making the curious episode more curious is the fact that the two cases had long ago been closed, so there was no legitimate reason for the district attorney’s secrecy.

Even more curious, the documents had been sealed, surreptitiously, about the same time in June 2018 that the district attorney’s office filed capital murder charges against Fielder in connection with the case of the murdered deputies.

Why would the district attorney suddenly seal documents in two closed cases? Why was it done without following the proper legal procedures? What was someone in the district attorney’s office trying to hide — the fact that the office had previously dismissed two serious cases against a man now charged with the slaying of two deputies?

Moreover, what would lead a prosecutor of any level of experience to ask a district court clerk directly — and not a judge, which is the proper route — to seal a file?

These are not inconsequential questions, and they are among a litany of queries we posed to the district attorney’s office, which has yet to respond.

“Judges’ orders are the only thing that seals a case,” Clerk of District Court Kristi Hill told The Star, adding that her clerks have been reminded of that this week.

While Judge Burns considers the court clerk’s actions to be an honest mistake, the sealing of documents was certainly no accident on the part of the DA’s office.

It also appears to be quite meticulous: The 50-plus documents in one case were sealed while others were not, meaning there was some extensive picking and choosing of which documents to hide.

The sealing of these public documents was a deliberate act on the part of the district attorney’s office — by all appearances to hide embarrassing information from the public in the case of a man suspected of gunning down two sheriff’s deputies.

One of the cases in which documents were sealed involved the murder of 22-year-old Kelsey Ewonus of Overland Park, who was found shot to death in a car in 2015. Two juries were hung in 2017 before Dupree dismissed the case in September of that year, choosing via “prosecutorial discretion,” according to court records, not to try Fielder a third time.

The second Fielder case in which documents were mysteriously sealed by the DA’s office until this week involved a Dec. 29, 2017, sexual assault and battery that was ultimately dismissed by Dupree’s office.

In a case still pending, Fielder was also charged with the carjacking of a woman earlier that same month. And Fielder is charged in Jackson County with the Dec. 26, 2017, murder of Rosemarie Harmon.

Notably, all of those December 2017 crimes occurred after Fielder’s release following the failed prosecutions of him in the Kelsey Ewonus murder.

Three area prosecutors and close observers of Dupree’s office who requested anonymity said the Ewonus case was difficult yet doable, but that Dupree left himself with far-less-experienced attorneys after a purge of the staff when he took office in 2017 — and that the Ewonus case hinged largely on circumstantial evidence best communicated to jurors by seasoned prosecutors.

Then, as one said, he just quit on the case.

Are these the jigsaw pieces the DA’s office didn’t want us to put together? Are there other pieces we haven’t seen yet?

At the very least, ask yourself: Do you really want a district attorney, perhaps the most powerful presence in any community, playing hide-and-seek with public documents and past actions?

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star


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