Sealed Fates

Not so very long ago, a Colorado kindergartner was murdered, her body violated in the most awful, intimate way before it was discarded.

Her name was not JonBenet Ramsey.
Under a peculiar Colorado statute, you might not know her name at all--except that the disappearance of Ashley Gray from her parents' home in August 1995 made the news before her battered body was found eight hours later. In fact, it was someone who'd heard broadcast reports describing the missing child who spotted Ashley in a dumpster several blocks from her Five Points home. The five-year-old had been sexually assaulted, which means her file falls under section 24/72/304 (4) (a) of a state law requiring that the name of any victim of sexual assault "be deleted from any criminal justice record prior to the release of such record to any individual or agency other than a criminal justice agency."

And that includes the press, which has long had an unwritten policy of keeping such names confidential.

When it was passed by the Colorado legislature five years ago, the statute was designed to protect a sexual-assault victim's privacy. But it did nothing to protect young Ashley Gray.

Next Monday, Jon Morris, a friend of Ashley's family, is scheduled to go on trial in Denver District Court for her murder. As Karen Bowers reports in this week's cover story, Morris's is the first death-penalty case in Denver in several years, and it's the first to fall under a new law that dictates that a three-judge panel, rather than a jury, will decide whether a convicted murderer lives or dies. Largely because of this, the "criminal justice records" related to Ashley Gray's death are voluminous--as are the motions that, even now, Morris's public defenders are presenting to the court.

In investigating Morris's story and where his life intersected with that of Ashley Gray, Bowers found herself running into obstacle after obstacle. Because a death-penalty case is politically charged--and subject to endless appeals--officials were particularly circumspect in providing information. The Denver Police Department, for example, refused to release computer dispatch sheets that would have shown how many times cops had been called to the Gray home, even though such documents are usually made available to reporters. The DA's office "advised us not to release the requested information as it could jeopardize the ongoing investigation," the DPD wrote in rejecting Bowers's request, even though Morris had been charged with the murder more than a year earlier.

And because Ashley had been sexually assaulted, court files--the same files that have already been discussed at preliminary hearings and are slated to be aired again in open court next week--were particularly difficult to obtain. Although such files are usually available to the press, because Ashley had been a victim of sexual assault as well as murder, the criminal justice record was handled according to state statute: A court clerk read through the requested files, censored Ashley's name, then billed Westword 75 cents a page before the records were released. (State law also allows the court to charge up to $30 an hour for the clerk's time, but the court waived that fee in this case.)

Imagine, if you can, the media uproar that will result if a Boulder District Court clerk tries to do the same in the case of JonBenet Ramsey, applying a strict interpretation of the state statute to court files because JonBenet was sexually assaulted before she was murdered. (This also requires that you imagine that someone is charged with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a possibility that looks more remote every day.) The situation would be no less ridiculous: Everyone knows the victim's name and knows the victim is beyond caring about a loss of privacy, because she has already lost her life.

And that, of course, is the real crime.
Keeping a free press has its price.
On Tuesday Westword anted up, arguing in Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt's courtroom that because Ashley Gray's name was already known and because Jon Morris is about to go on very public trial for her murder, this case is an exception to the state statute.

Hyatt disagreed. "This court is not prepared to create an exception," the judge said, noting that the state statute is "clear" and its language "mandatory."

It is also ludicrously unnecessary in the case of Ashley Gray's short life and sorry death--just as it would be in the case of JonBenet Ramsey.

Keeping a free press has its price. Fortunately, it sometimes buys a clear path to justice.

Last Friday the city's charges--including resisting arrest, interfering with a police officer and trespassing--were dropped against Denver high-school student Jessie Hopkins and a student's father, Gene Roach, both of whom had been part of the now-infamous confrontation with police outside Thomas Jefferson High School last May. Public outcry over that racially charged incident, in which 74 cops tangled with several hundred teenagers--good teenagers, by all accounts--after an all-city dance sponsored by Brother 2 Brother, led to a lengthy investigation by the Denver Police Department. And that lengthy investigation resulted in a short report summarizing findings contained in almost 1,000 pages of documents that the city refused to release.

Karen Bowers was on this story, too. Despite the city's refusal to open its files, she talked with many of the people who were at Thomas Jefferson that night and wrote a compelling analysis of the situation in the December 21 issue of Westword.

Two days later, the ACLU, which was defending the four people charged in the fight, sued the city under the Colorado Open Records Act, asking that the full police investigation be made public; Westword signed on to that suit. Earlier this month Denver District Judge Paul Markson ordered the release of all related documents except for a 63-page summary of the police investigation. The ACLU protested even that being kept private, and Markson gave both sides thirty days to appeal his decision.

It didn't take that long for Denver officials to realize that in the clear light of day--and public scrutiny--its decision to charge even four people wasn't going to look good. The charges against Hopkins and Roach were dropped soon after Markson announced his decision; the city attorney's office is expected to drop the remaining charges, filed against two juveniles, later this week.

Lose some, win some.
In the case of Ashley Gray, there are no school dances. She will never be a teenager. Her murderer took her future from her.

We should remember her name.

For a daily dose of Calhoun, look for her new column, Wake-Up Call, only on the Web at www.westword.com

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