Murder suspect's records stay open
James C. Koepp's probation and parole records will remain open for public scrutiny.
Judge Alan Bates ruled Thursday against Koepp, the only suspect in a triple murder and a defendant in a felony traffic case. Koepp wanted a permanent injunction to restrict media and public access to his records, but the judge ruled that his attorneys failed to meet the requirements for such an order.
The lawyers did not prove that Koepp could not get a fair trial-the basis for his motion, Bates ruled.
Citing his 30 years experience as a lawyer and judge, Bates noted that Rock County Court always has been able to provide fair trials with impartial juries in cases generating extensive pretrial publicity.
The Janesville Gazette sought and reviewed Koepp's records and copied about a fifth of them. The newspaper published a story Feb. 11 on Koepp's criminal and personal history based on the records.
District Attorney David O'Leary has said he needs more evidence before he can file charges of first-degree intentional homicide against Koepp in the killings last month of Danyetta Lentz and her teenage children, Nicole and Scott.
Sheriff Bob Spoden is convinced his department arrested the correct suspect in the murders. While detectives are building a circumstantial case against Koepp, they also are awaiting results of analysis of potential evidence by the State Crime Laboratory.
Meanwhile, Koepp has been in custody at the county jail in lieu of $60,000 bond imposed for four traffic charges, two of them felonies. The charges stem from a chase Koepp led deputies on when he was supposed to be undergoing a voluntary interview about the Lentz murders.
Because murder charges have not been filed, the traffic case was the launching pad for Koepp's attempts to keep his records closed or at least to get notice that someone was seeking them so he could fight their release in court.
One of his attorneys, assistant public defender Walt Isaacson, argued that the state Department of Corrections violated its operating manual when it released Koepp's records without giving him a heads-up.
He further argued that most requests for information under the state's open records law were for the records of public officials and actions and that's what the law was intended for.
Elizabeth Kennebeck, assistant legal counsel for the corrections department, and Margery Tibbetts, attorney for the Gazette, countered that the state's open records law trumped the operating manual, which provides only guidelines, not rules or codes.
Furthermore, the guidelines that Isaacson referred to were out of date and were later changed to say that only government employees should be given notice of a request for records about them, Kennebeck said.
The open records law clearly states that the reason for a records request doesn't have to be given, Kennebeck said.
"The fact that records are wanted for light reading or the press to run an article doesn't have any bearing on whether it should be released," Kennebeck said. "The defense might not like that, but the open records law presumes release.
"The fact that this request came from the Gazette because it wanted to run an article on Mr. Koepp doesn't matter," she said.
Tibbetts argued that Koepp's lawyers didn't show that his rights were violated. Extensive coverage of a criminal matter doesn't prove that a fair trial is not possible, she said.
Moreover, even if Koepp's rights were infringed, he still had legal options, Tibbetts said. She was alluding to his attorneys' ability to question potential jurors and reject those they considered biased and his right to ask for a trial to be held elsewhere or a jury to be chosen elsewhere through a change of venue.
"Where is the proof that Mr. Koepp can't get a fair trial in the current (traffic) case?" she asked.
While the corrections department's operating manual muddied the waters, Bates said, the guidelines were irrelevant to the heart of the case: Despite the records release, Koepp still has legal recourse to ensure a fair trial with an impartial jury. Therefore, he doesn't deserve a permanent seal on his records.