CBS News 8 and several other news organizations are fighting to unseal dozens of search warrants executed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department in the murder of the Fallbrook family.
The search warrant affidavits and inventories detail evidence related to the murders of Joseph and Summer McStay, and their two young sons, Gianni and Joey in February 2010.
In November 2014, investigators arrested Charles “Chase” Merritt, a business associate of Joseph McStay. Merritt has pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder. District Attorney Ramos will decide later whether to seek the death penalty.
The motion submitted Saturday by San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Mark Vos seeks to delay unsealing of the warrants at least until after Merritt's preliminary hearing, which could be continued for months in the high-profile case.
“The People cannot suppose that anybody, including our friends in the Media, would knowingly hamper the ongoing murder investigation. But premature disclosure will do just that,” the DA's motion argued.
The DA's motion itself has large sections redacted, including declarations filed under seal by two San Bernardino Sheriff's homicide detectives and a deputy district attorney. The sealed declarations presumably describe how releasing the search warrants could threaten a claimed ongoing investigation.
According to the DA's opposition filing:
|“The prosecution against Charles Merritt for murdering the entire McStay family is at an early stage. Police investigators are still at work on a few important things. Although the District Attorney fully supports public access to judicial proceedings, the People ask the court based on overriding investigative interests to keep the sealed warrant materials sealed a short while longer. The People's investigators expect to have things mopped up by the preliminary hearing, when important evidence will be made public anyway.”|
Defendant Merritt already has waived his right to a timely preliminary hearing within ten days of his arraignment, which happened in November.
Under California law, Merritt could have forced a speedy trial within 60 days of his preliminary hearing. Under that scenario, prosecutors would have been forced to move forward the evidence they have in hand.
Hearing time waivers are common, however, especially in possible death penalty cases.
The McStay family mysteriously disappeared from their Fallbrook home in February 2010.
Initially, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the FBI handled the investigation as a missing persons case. The agencies believed the McStays may have voluntarily crossed the border into Mexico.
When the four bodies were discovered buried in the desert near Victorville in November 2013, the case was handed off to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department as a homicide investigation.
Last week, at the request of CBS News 8 and other news organizations, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Runston Maino unsealed four search warrants connected to the local McStay investigation.
Those four, local warrants were served in 2010 before the McStay bodies were discovered and no new evidence against defendant Merritt was revealed when the records were unsealed Friday.
The court filing submitted Saturday lists 35 “warrants, intercept orders, and associated materials” that DA Ramos is seeking to keep secret.
At a November 7 news conference following Merritt's arrest, San Bernardino Sheriff John McMahon told the public there were 60 warrants served in the case.
In an email exchange Sunday, Deputy District Attorney Mark Vos confirmed to CBS News 8 that the number of sealed warrants and associated records is actually 35.
The DA's filing also challenges the public's right of access to sealed search warrants under the First Amendment.
“To date there is no California case holding that sealed warrant materials have been historically open, or that public access to them before trial plays a significant positive role in the warrant process,” the motion argued.
At Friday's hearing in San Diego, Merritt's defense attorney, Robert Ponce, also argued unsuccessfully that his client's right to a fair trial would be trampled by release of search warrant evidence.
Ponce may introduce the same argument at the next court hearing set before Judge Michael Smith in San Bernardino on January 30 and assert pre-trail publicity could taint the jury pool.
The DA's motion make passing reference to the defendant's “right to fair trial, protection from prejudice caused by untested evidence, pretrial publicity of the defendant's criminal record, right to privacy, etc.” but leaves those arguments for the defendant to make.
“(W)e are concerned mainly with the investigative interests outlined in the (sealed) declarations,” the DA's motion concluded.