Judge to unseal redacted search warrants in McStay family murder - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Judge to unseal redacted search warrants in McStay family murders

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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.  (CBS 8) -- A San Bernardino County Court judge has agreed to unseal more than 30 search warrants connected to the investigation into the 2010 murders of the McStay family of four in Fallbrook.

Judge Michael A. Smith said two search warrants will remain sealed and the rest will be redacted before release to the public July 1.

In court Wednesday, defendant Charles “Chase” Merritt, 58, entered a formal not guilty plea to four counts of murder with a special circumstance, following last week's preliminary hearing where he was bound over for trial.

A tentative trial date has been set for August 10 but may be continued, said Jimmy Mettias, Merritt's defense attorney.

Prosecutors told the judge they plan to announce at a July 10 hearing whether they will seek the death penalty against Merritt for the sledgehammer murders of Joseph and Summer McStay and the couple's two, young sons.

CBS News 8 and other news organizations argued that 35 search warrants in the case should now be unsealed to reveal probable cause statements used by law enforcement to seize evidence.

An off-road motorcyclist discovered the family's remains in the desert near Victorville in November 2013.

Since then, San Bernardino County Sheriff's investigators have used search warrants to seize phone and computer records, online business accounts, vehicles, and evidence from homes and businesses.

In November 2014, detectives arrested Merritt, a business associate in Joseph McStay's fountain manufacturing business.

The evidence detailed in the search warrants has remained under seal by the court.

Judge Smith denied a media request to unseal the warrants in January, but indicated he would take up the matter again following Merritt's preliminary hearing.

The media plans to argue on July 10 that the various redactions -- proposed by both prosecutors and defense attorneys during a closed-chamber meeting Wednesday with Judge Smith  – are illegal.

Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty said in court that two of the warrants should remain sealed in their entirety.

Attorneys said those two search warrants detail a Child Protective Services complaint filed by Summer McStay a few months before the family disappeared.

The CPS complaint involves minor children and an extended family member, according to attorneys, and the details have been widely reported online and in social media.

It is the policy of CBS News 8 not to identify minors involved in CPS investigations of a sexual nature.

Attorney Mettias told reporters there are “two or three sentences” repeated in several warrant affidavits that he does not want made public because they could “fan the flames” of pretrial publicity.

Mettias said information in those passages had been “twisted” by law enforcement investigators to gain access to evidence sought in the search warrants.

Judge Smith ruled that 33 warrants would be released on July 1 with the proposed redactions.

Smith also released two exhibits displayed by prosecutors during Merritt's preliminary hearing. They detail the location of Merritt's cell phone during a series of phone calls placed in the Victorville area on February 6, 2010, two days after the McStays disappeared.

In a related development, the office of San Bernardino County Counsel on Wednesday denied a Public Records Act Request made by CBS News 8 seeking autopsy reports in the case. The county's denial letter cites a law enforcement exemption to releasing autopsies created by a Sheriff's Department Coroner.

CBS News 8 did not request autopsy photos, which by state law cannot by released to the public.
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