The average Pitkin County resident largely has no clue as to why William Styler, Nancy Styler and Kathy Carpenter were arrested in early March in connection with the brutal death of 57-year-old Aspen native Nancy Pfister.
The Stylers, a couple from the Front Range, and Carpenter, an Aspen bank teller, were charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Early this month, each suspect received an additional charge: accessory to first-degree murder.
Pitkin County District Court files that contain affidavits in support of the arrest warrants remain sealed. Originally, it was the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office that wanted the information withheld from the media and the public, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation. Now, with officials having admitted that the investigation is essentially complete, it’s the defense attorneys for the Stylers and Carpenter who are fighting the release of details surrounding the case.
The continued secrecy has some legal experts scratching their heads. A ruling from Judge Gail Nichols on the district attorney’s motion to unseal the records, expected over the past two weeks, has yet to materialize. Based on recent court dockets, Nichols has a heavy civil-case schedule in addition to her criminal-case workload.
Steven D. Zansberg, a Denver attorney specializing in the First Amendment, has filed what’s known as a “joinder” to the district attorney’s motion on behalf of The Aspen Times, the Aspen Daily News and seven other media organizations. He said Thursday that keeping the documents sealed for so long is not typical of the way Colorado courts conduct their business.
A preliminary hearing on the charges is set for June 9. As of now, the proceeding is going forward, but there has been behind-the-scenes courthouse chatter of possible defense requests to postpone it.
“As our joinder in the People’s motion makes clear, it is quite common for courts in Colorado to unseal the court file, including affidavits of probable cause, well in advance of a preliminary hearing, and they usually do so very soon after defendants are arrested and charged,” Zansberg said in an email to the Times.
“The fact that the court file has been sealed now for months is highly unusual, and given the People’s representation that their investigation has been largely completed, (it’s) unprecedented,” Zansberg continued. “Courts recognize that there are myriad alternative means to ensure that defendants receive a fair trial, other than keeping the entire public in the dark about an important criminal case affecting the community.”
By comparison, in two other Colorado mountain communities, records related to recent high-profile criminal death cases were released just weeks after the initial arrests.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today, a newspaper serving Routt County and surrounding areas, reported April 15 on the release of records related to the case against Meghan McKeon, a woman charged with child abuse resulting in the death of her 3-year-old son. Both the Routt County District Attorney’s Office and the public defender had opposed the unsealing of the affidavit supporting the arrest warrant.
The District Attorney’s Office opposed it on the grounds that the investigation was still underway. The public defender cited concerns about McKeon receiving a fair trial following widespread media coverage. McKeon was officially charged on April 3.
But, according to the newspaper story by reporter Matt Stensland, County Judge James Garrecht wrote that public access to the records is controlled by the right to access judicial records under the Colorado and U.S. constitutions and specifically the First Amendment. The unsealed records, the story suggests, revealed much new information about the investigation into the death of the child, Austin Davis.
And on May 8, Summit County District Judge Karen Romeo ordered the release of the arrest affidavit for Charles Sattler, accused of second-degree murder in the April 14 beating death of a well-known local chef, according to the Summit Daily News. Romeo unsealed the records on the condition that the identities of eyewitnesses be redacted. The homicide took place in a Frisco motel.
Nancy Leong, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, echoed Zansberg’s contention that the situation surrounding the sealed records in the Pfister homicide case is odd. She said fewer than 1 percent of criminal case files are sealed “for any reason,” at the national level or in Colorado.
But the decision to unseal records is in the hands of the judge presiding over the case, she said, noting that judges have to weigh a variety of factors, including privacy interests of the parties involved.
A two- or three-week delay in unsealing records in a homicide case is probably close to the norm, Leong said. More than two months — as in the situation with the Stylers’ and Carpenter’s files — is quite unusual.
“There are a number of reasons why a judge might choose to seal documents for a short period of time,” he said. “The judge might be worried about the reputation of the parties accused but not convicted. The judge might be worried about a risk of harm to one of the people involved with the case somehow — for example, that someone who has not yet been indicted might harm a witness.”
Such files “are almost always unsealed” prior to a preliminary hearing, Leong said.
Preliminary hearings are usually open affairs unless there is some major safety risk, such as a threat to national security, the law professor added.