A judge hearing the lawsuit filed by a Daily Camera reporter seeking the release of the JonBenet Ramsey grand jury's secret indictment on Thursday ordered Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett to show why the document should be kept secret.
Camera reporter Charlie Brennan and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed the lawsuit in Boulder District Court last month, citing the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act in an effort to compel Garnett to release the un-prosecuted indictment of John and Patsy Ramsey on charges relating to their 6-year-old daughter's death.
The Camera is not a plaintiff, but supports the lawsuit.
The district attorney's office and attorneys for Brennan and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press presented initial arguments before retired Weld County Judge Robert Lowenbach on Oct. 11.
Lowenbach ruled Thursday that releasing the requested document would not be a breach of grand-jury secrecy rules.
"The court concludes that the secrecy required in the grand jury process... is not compromised through a process that requires the presentment of the indictment in open court," Lowenbach wrote in the four-page ruling. "Under this procedure, there is no breach of the secrecy and confidentiality expected in grand jury proceedings.
"It is ordered therefore that the defendant (Garnett) show cause why he should not be required to disclose the requested documents."
The Camera reported earlier this year that the Boulder County grand jury voted in 1999 to indict the slain 6-year-old's parents on charges of child abuse resulting in death -- but that then-District Attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign the document and prosecute the Ramseys.
Attorneys for Brennan and the press committee argued the indictment should be disclosed publicly because it's a criminal justice record that reflects official action by the grand jury.
Chief Trial Deputy Sean Finn, the custodian of records for the Boulder County District Attorney's Office, argued that the grand jury's oath of secrecy still stood and that releasing the requested document could negatively affect future grand juries.
'Justifying an indictment'
In his ruling, Lowenbach wrote that the Colorado Supreme Court has declared that the reasons for grand jury secrecy are to prevent the escape of those who might be indicted, to encourage witnesses to come forward, to encourage uninhibited discussion of a case, and to prevent disclosure of derogatory information against someone who has not been indicted.
But Lowenbach wrote that Brennan's assertion, if true, meant the evidence presented to the grand jurors was enough to warrant an indictment and thus did not require secrecy.
"In this case, the only factor that may be implicated is the prevention of derogatory information being released against someone who has not been indicted," Lowenbach wrote. "In this case, assuming as asserted by the plaintiffs that the grand jury voted to indict Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, the evidence rose to a level in the minds of the grand jurors justifying an indictment."
While the existence of the indictment has not been confirmed in open court, at the Oct. 11 hearing, Lowenbach cleared the room to discuss with prosecutors whether it did, in fact, exist to "make sure we're arguing over something." After a short discussion, the hearing proceeded.
Garnett previously rejected two requests by the Camera and Brennan seeking the release of the indictment under the Colorado Open Records Act.
"It's a complicated situation and the most important thing in my office is complying with the law," Garnett said Thursday. "We just want to make sure we comply with all our legal obligations."
Garnett said he will review the ruling before making a decision on how to proceed.
Thomas Kelley, an attorney for Brennan and the press advocacy group, said he hopes the ruling will lead to the release of the document.
"I think Judge Lowenbach ruled very carefully and that his order is very well reasoned and backed by good law," Kelley said. "The indictment now ought to be released."
'In the public interest'
Six-year-old JonBenet was found dead Dec. 26, 1996, in the basement of her family's Boulder home, 755 15th St., several hours after Patsy Ramsey called 911 to say her daughter was missing and that a ransom note had been left behind.
In October 1999, more than a year after the case went to a grand jury, then-D.A. Hunter announced that the grand-jury investigation had come to an end and that no charges would be filed due to a lack of evidence.
But in January of this year, the Camera reported that members of the grand jury confirmed they voted to indict both John and Patsy Ramsey and that Hunter refused to sign the indictment, believing he could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Thursday's ruling, Lowenbach also wrote that the disclosure of the indictment would serve the public interest to show transparency of the prosecutor's decision not to prosecute anyone in the case.
"This court agrees that transparency of a prosecutor's decision not to proceed with an indictment from the grand jury is in the public interest," he wrote. "Recognizing that the grand jury's 'indictment' is not required to be supported by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, but that the district attorney cannot proceed with a prosecution unless he has a reasonable belief that he can obtain a conviction, the process followed in this case offered citizens no opportunity to consider the conflict between the decisions of the prosecutor and the grand jury."