Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols released a written ruling Monday that says the information supporting the arrests of three people accused of killing Aspen native Nancy Pfister will remain under seal until after a preliminary hearing.
The preliminary hearing for defendants William Styler, Nancy Styler and Katherine Carpenter, who are being held in separate county jails without bond, is set for June 25, 27 and 30 and July 2.
The judge ruled that some information in the court files linked to each defendant, such as various motions and responses filed by defense attorneys and prosecutors, can be released later this week, on Thursday. But arrest-warrant affidavits — which include details about the investigation and insight into why authorities believe the Stylers and Carpenter are responsible for Pfister’s late-February death — will not be unsealed Thursday.
The Stylers, former tenants of Pfister’s West Buttermilk Mountain residence, and Carpenter, a former Aspen bank teller and personal assistant to Pfister, were arrested in early March. The Pitkin County Coroner’s Office said on April 16 that the manner of Pfister’s death was homicide, the result of blunt-force trauma.
Her body was not discovered until approximately 36 hours after her death, the coroner said. Carpenter is said to have phoned authorities after finding Pfister’s body on Feb. 26 in a closet inside the West Buttermilk house.
The District Attorney’s Office on April 9 filed a motion asking the court to unseal the arrest information, and nine media groups joined the request through Denver attorney Steven D. Zansberg, who specializes in the First Amendment. Attorneys for the defendants have opposed the motion, arguing that the affidavits contain false information and threaten to prejudice a potential jury-trial pool.
Most of the information contained in the affidavits will be presented at the preliminary hearing, Nichols acknowledged, and defense attorneys will have the opportunity to refute evidence in that setting. If the information were unsealed prior to the preliminary hearing and the media reported it to the public, the news would be one-sided, with a greater likelihood of tainting a jury pool, the judge suggested in her ruling.
The preliminary hearing, in which a judge decides if there is cause to move a criminal case forward, is the next step in the process. No trial date has been set.
“The Court concludes that sealing the affidavits and other documents containing information from the affidavits until after the preliminary hearing is over advances the compelling state interest in preserving defendants’ rights to a fair trial by an impartial jury in Pitkin County and therefore, outweighs the press and public’s right to access these affidavits before the preliminary hearing,” Nichols wrote.
“The Court also concludes that sealing these affidavits and other documents containing information from the affidavits only until after the preliminary hearing is completed is a narrowly tailored measure taken to preserve or promote defendants’ rights to a fair trial in Pitkin County because it denies the right to access court files only for a limited time ... until after the preliminary hearing is held,” Nichols added.
Reaction to the judge’s ruling was mixed.
“We very much appreciate the time and thoughtful consideration Judge Nichols has given this matter,” attorney Thomas B. Kelley, who works with Zansberg at Denver law firm Levine Sullivan Koch and Schulz LLP, wrote in an email to The Aspen Times.
“While we disagree with some of Judge Nichols’ reasoning, particularly Her Honor’s conclusion that there is compelling need to defer unsealing of the warrant affidavits until after the preliminary hearing, we are pleased that all such papers filed in this court of public record will be released at that time,” he said in the prepared statement.
Aspen Times Editor Rick Carroll read the ruling in full. He later expressed some disappointment.
“All along we’ve felt that the public has a right to know about this, just like any other crime that is allegedly committed in Pitkin County,” he said. “But we respect the judge’s ruling and are appreciative of the fact that the affidavit will be released at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing.”
Nichols also addressed other matters in the ruling:
• The defendants’ motion for a closed hearing on the District Attorney’s motion to unseal the court file was denied.
“At one of the first appearances of Ms. Styler in court, one of her attorneys reported that a friend of hers from Denver had learned at a cocktail party that the murder weapon was a hammer. This information was not public at the time,” Nichols wrote. “The Court accepts for purposes of this motion that there were leaks from law enforcement regarding the condition of the body when found, the contents of the autopsy report and the identity of the murder weapon.”
Accordingly, Nichols added, “even assuming there was a leak of information from law enforcement, that information was not prejudicial to any defendant and thus has no bearing whatever on whether the Court should have a hearing to determine whether or not to unseal the Court’s file.”
• Unsealing the court records will not prevent a loss of the defendants’ privacy, the judge said.
“Defendants assert that the privacy of the witnesses and the defendants will be wrongfully invaded if the Court’s files are unsealed because the press will harass them,” Nichols wrote. “Once the preliminary hearing is completed ... the privacy of these witnesses may be invaded. Keeping the Court’s records sealed will not prevent this loss or privacy.”
In addition to first-degree murder, the Stylers and Carpenter have been charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and accessory to murder.