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Mom’s Murder Records Should Have Been Public

(CN) - A Virginia judge violated press rights in sealing records related to the trial of a woman who abused her infant daughters, one of whom was beaten to death, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Lillian Callender and her boyfriend, Michael Stoffa, had been charged with two counts of felony child neglect and one count of second-degree murder after Callendar's 17-month-old daughter, Angeli Callendar, died in February 2010 of head trauma. Both Army veterans in the 20s, the couple had been living in Denbigh, Va.

Investigators said Stoffa had choked, punched, kicked and otherwise abused Angeli and her 2-year-old sister as Callendar did nothing. Though Angeli died from her injuries, the 2-year-old had "substantial injuries" all over her body, including a burned ear.

Callendar and Stofffa were convicted of all three counts in separate bench trials, with Callender sentenced to 40 years in prison and Stoffa sentenced to 60 years.

In March 2011, prior to Callender's sentencing and before Stoffa's trial, Daily Press reporter Ashley Kelly requested permission to review the exhibits from Callendar's trial, including photographs and autopsy reports.

After the clerk for the Newport News Circuit Court refused such access, a judge ordered the entire Callender file sealed until the conclusion of Stoffa's trial.

Both Kelly and the Daily Press challenged the ruling, leading the court to later say that attorneys for Callendar and the commonwealth could instead protect their rights in Stoffa's trial by withdrawing the original exhibits. It directed the parties to leave photocopies of the original exhibits placed in the filed under seal.

The Court of Appeals kicked the dispute to the Virginia Supreme Court after finding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear appeals from sealing orders.

Though the trial records are now public since seal expired at the conclusion of Stoffa's trial in May 2011, the high court found that the possibility of repetition saved the claims from mootness.

"The benefits of public access to criminal proceedings have been recognized since before the Magna Carta," Justice William Mims wrote for the court. "Such access ensures that proceedings are conducted fairly, discourages perjury, safeguards against secret bias or partiality, and imparts legitimacy to the decisions of our judiciary. Yet, to work effectively, public access must be contemporaneous - the public must be able to scrutinize the judicial process as it takes place. ... To delay or postpone disclosure undermines the benefits of public scrutiny and may have the same result as complete suppression."

A defendant's Sixth Amendment right to fair trial does not outweigh the public's constitutional right to access criminal proceedings and records, according to the Feb. 28 ruling.

A court can seal records if there is a compelling governmental interest, but any closure must be narrowly tailored to serve that interest, it added.

"In this case, the circuit court failed to make specific findings necessary to justify the sealing order," Mims wrote.

Since Stoffa was headed for a bench trial at the time of the order, there could not be any concerns over tainting the jury pool, the court found.

Protecting the original exhibits from damage is a valid concern, but it could have been achieved with minimal harm to the public by keeping the required photographs public, it added.

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