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In Re: the Raymond Gee and the Gee Family Homicide v. Christopher Harris

December 8, 2010

IN RE: THE RAYMOND GEE AND THE GEE FAMILY HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION,
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
CHRISTOPHER HARRIS, INTERVENOR-APPELLEE, AND THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER, THE PANTAGRAPH, AND THE HERALD & REVIEW,
INTERVENORS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Logan County No. 09MR73 Honorable Thomas M. Harris, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Knecht

PRESIDING JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the opinion of the court:

On November 16, 2009, intervenors, the State Journal-Register, the Pantagraph, and the Herald & Review (collectively, media intervenors), filed a petition to intervene and gain access to a search warrant and attendant documents related to a homicide investigation into the murders of Raymond Gee and the Gee family. The trial court granted the petitions to intervene and, further, unsealed (1) the complaint and order for search warrant, (2) the search warrant, (3) the motion to seal the court file, (4) the order granting the motion, and (5) the docket sheet. An affidavit supporting the search warrant and an inventory and return of search warrant remained sealed.

Media intervenors appeal, arguing the trial court erred when it refused to unseal the affidavit and inventory. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 21, 2009, plaintiff, the People of the State of Illinois, secured a search warrant relating to the murders of Raymond Gee, Ruth Gee, Justina Constant, Dillen Constant, and Austin Gee, and the attempted murder of T.G., a minor. The complaint and order for search warrant, and all attendant documents, were impounded by the circuit clerk. On October 22, 2009, a return was made on the search warrant accompanied by an inventory of items seized pursuant to execution of the search warrant. The State moved to seal the contents of the court file, alleging public disclosure of the contents could jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation. The trial court allowed the motion and ordered the court file sealed for a period of 180 days.

On November 16, 2009, media intervenors (newspapers of general circulation in the area) sought to intervene and to vacate the trial court's order sealing the file. On November 18, 2009, the media intervenors were allowed to intervene and present arguments on their motion to vacate. The court ordered certain portions of the file to be unsealed and made available to the public, including the docket sheet, the motion to seal the court file (with certain license-plate information redacted), and the order allowing the motion. The court found the remaining contents of the file should remain sealed to protect the integrity of the ongoing criminal investigation.

Prior to the entry of the written order, Christopher Harris (defendant) had been charged in Logan County case No. 09-CF-171 with the commission of the crimes. Defendant Harris then filed a petition to intervene and requested the contents of the search-warrant court file remain sealed. Defendant's filings asserted additional facts and arguments relative to the sealing issue, so the trial court ordered a rehearing on the motion to vacate earlier filed by the media intervenors.

On January 15, 2010, the trial court conducted a rehearing on the motion to vacate and a hearing on defendant's motion to seal and the media intervenors' motion to reconsider filed on December 23, 2009.

On March 24, 2010, the trial court entered a detailed 10-page order granting partial relief. Citing two federal cases finding a qualified first-amendment right of access to warrant records, the court found "the presumption of access extends to documents filed with the clerk of the court in this search[-] warrant case."

The trial court next considered whether the presumption could be rebutted by demonstrating suppression is essential to preserve higher values. The court noted the "unique nature" of the crime, generating extensive media coverage. The court referenced "voluminous discovery" representing approximately 75% of what is anticipated from the various law-enforcement agencies. "Certainly much investigation remains to be done by the defense in these two cases." The court concluded there was a substantial probability disclosure would compromise an ongoing investigation and defendant's right to a fair trial.

The trial court also balanced any right of access against the privacy right of the only surviving victim, a minor. "This court has a duty to protect the privacy interests of a minor *** [and] must exercise great care when faced with a media petition for access in a case involving a minor." The court noted what set this case apart "is the near certainty that the details will be published if they are disclosed, in addition to the magnitude of the risk such disclosure might have given that both defendants face a potential sentence of death."

The trial court ruled documents previously unsealed would remain unsealed, including (1) the docket sheet, (2) the motion to seal the court file, and (3) the order granting the motion. Additionally, the court unsealed the complaint and order for search warrant and the search warrant.

The trial court next considered "alternatives to sealing" the (1) affidavit supporting the search warrant and (2) inventory and return of search warrant and found "redaction as the only possible alternative." The court found redacting would serve no purpose because that would leave nothing of value or interest to be disclosed. The court ordered the affidavit ...


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