Carroll: In Pfister case, there’s no sense in silencing the silent
Monday’s court hearing for Nancy and William Styler, two of the three suspects so far in the killing of Nancy Pfister, set the stage for the defense team’s predictable strategy to change the venue when and if the case goes to trial.
Pre-trial publicity is often a concern for both the prosecution and defense. And with media lenses from both near and far focused on the Pfister homicide, the Styler couple’s attorneys contend that pre-trial publicity will have a detrimental effect on the defense’s ability to get a fair trial.
That was the upshot of Monday’s arguments made by Tina Fang, who, along with Sara Steele, represents William Styler.
“These folks have already been tried and convicted in the press,” she declared.
Fang runs the Public Defender’s Office for the 9th Judicial District. She’s carved out a reputation as a fierce advocate for defendants and a tenacious critic of law enforcement.
She’s also enjoyed success in the courtroom — often stinging police officers or prosecutors for their lack of attention to detail, shoddy investigations or failure to release evidence in a timely manner. Fang’s scrutiny of law enforcement work has resulted in prosecutors being sanctioned and criminal charges — in what appeared to be slam-dunk cases, no less — being dismissed.
On Monday, Fang pleaded with District Judge Gail Nichols to order defense attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and lawyer Gerry Goldstein to abide by their professional code of ethics by not discussing the case with the media. There was no mention of a gag order, but Nichols denied Fang’s motion nonetheless.
Goldstein, a renowned defense attorney whose work has resulted in exonerating convicted killers, previously had spoken to the Aspen Daily News about the Pfister case. One article quoted him as saying, “From what I can see, there is a marvelous law enforcement community in Aspen that came to a very studied and methodical conclusion. I have ultimate faith in Aspen’s justice system.”
Meanwhile, with Sheriff Joe DiSalvo seated in the front row of the galley, Fang took shots at him for remarks he made at the March 3 news conference following the arrest of the two Stylers.
“He became very emotional … and talked about the effect of the emotional toll,” Fang said of DiSalvo, who, along with Goldstein, was a good friend of Pfister’s. DiSalvo’s comment — that his office’s work basically was done with the arrest of the Stylers — also drew the ire of Fang. She argued that readers would interpret that comment, like Goldstein’s, to mean that the investigation is shut and closed, and the Stylers are guilty.
“These are reckless comments and (Goldstein) needs to be stopped from making them,” Fang told the judge. “The court needs to stop Joe DiSalvo from making comments to the press.”
Fang clearly has a different role than the media — her job is to do everything she can to keep things under wraps. Ours is to shine as much light as possible in a fair and responsible manner.
And while I respect the work Fang has done, I couldn’t help but get a chuckle — if such a thing is possible in a tragedy like this — at her request to put the muzzle on DiSalvo and other law enforcement in this case.
While the Sheriff’s Office traditionally has discussed arrests and investigations with reporters on a case-by-case basis to varying degrees, the Pfister probe has been anything but. The statements about this case have yielded little or no information other than the basics — who was arrested and what charges they face. It has been so frustrating for us, that we jokingly refer to the Sheriff’s Office as Fort Knox.
In fact, the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t even answered such basic questions as where they believe the killing happened. It wasn’t until Monday’s hearing, when Judge Nichols said it was Pfister’s home “where the crime allegedly took place,” that the answer we assumed came out.
But while any relevant information about the investigation has been difficult to come by, the Aspen rumor mill has been working overtime. Even Nichols recognized that truth, as evidenced by her recent talk with a neighbor.
“There are all sorts of things being said around town,” the judge said.
Another defense attorney, Beth Krulewitch, who represents Nancy Styler, said, “There is serious danger of leaking information.” She referenced a phone call she received from a Denver lawyer, who mentioned a fact about the case that could be found only in the affidavit supporting the arrest of the Stylers. That affidavit remains under a court-ordered seal.
In the meantime, Saturday’s arrest of a third suspect, Kathy Carpenter, means the Pfister homicide case only gets stranger and more baffling.
But the idea of putting a muzzle on those people who are actually privy to the case doesn’t compute — since there’s nothing to muzzle in the first place.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at email@example.com.
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