Little more information about the shooting death of 23-year-old Great Bend man Aron Villegas last November will be made public, at least until criminal proceedings begin.
A ruling this past week by 20th Judicial District Judge Ron Svaty denied the Great Bend Tribune access to court documents that might have shed more light on the incident, noting the public can wait until the preliminary hearings of the suspects to learn the facts in the case.
Svaty’s decision is unfortunate, Tribune Publisher Mary Hoisington said. “It is a blow to transparency and open government.”
Very little is known about what happened early on that Nov. 15 Sunday morning. Barton County Attorney Doug Matthews made it clear that all information was to flow through his office and his releases were scant on details.
What is known
“On November 15, 2015, law enforcement officers responded to a call regarding the shooting of a young man,” the initial release said. “Although medical treatment was initiated and the man was transferred to Great Bend Regional Hospital, he passed away as a result of his injuries.”
It identified the deceased as Aron Villegas. No other names were given, nor was the address where the shooting took place.
“The Great Bend Police Department and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation are in the midst of an extensive investigation and have conducted several interviews. When completed, the results of the investigation will be presented to the Barton County Attorney and a charging decision will be made. However, since an investigation is in progress, the Barton County Attorney’s Office cannot comment further on the status of the case.”
And, Matthews added “the public is urged against making comments on public media websites about the case while the matter is being investigated.”
It wasn’t until Dec. 2 that Matthews released a statement that included the names and charges against those involved. It followed the first appearance of two of the suspects.
Incidentally, the Tribune just happened to hear through unofficial sources these court appearances were taking place and covered them. It was after the story had been written late that afternoon that the release was received.
Alejo Villegas, Adam Eugene Suppes, and Juventino Villegas, all of Great Bend face charges of murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated battery, and criminal damage to property. Additionally, a separate charge of possession of cocaine was filed against Suppes.
Still, there was nothing on what had transpired.
More information could be available
Many of the details of what happened could be found in the probable cause affidavits supporting the warrants involved in the case. These documents are public record and available to the media, as well as anyone else, and the Great Bend Tribune had sought to get copies of them via Kansas law (KSA 22-2302) that was specifically enacted for the purpose of obtaining such documents.
Under this statute approved by the Kansas Legislature in 2014, probable cause affidavits are now public. An affidavit of probable cause is a sworn statement, typically made by a police officer, that outlines the factual justification for why a judge should consent to an arrest or search warrant or why an arrest made during a crime-in-progress was based on solid evidence that the person in custody is the person who is likely to have committed the crime.
The law requires judicial review and allows a judge to redact certain information. It also allows a judge, under very specific circumstances, to seal the documents, meaning they can’t be released.
In this case, Judge Svaty denied the Tribune’s request to have the documents released.
“Multiple affidavits are filed in these actions, including amended or corrected affidavits. Release of these affidavits could conceivably cause confusion or question, which would interfere with the orderly administration of judicial proceedings, including, but not limited to, the prosecution of this action,” Svaty wrote.
Besides, he continued, “the relevant information within the affidavits will be disclosed at preliminary hearings, but would be subject to cross examination and evidentiary rules.”
In other words, the information won’t come out until the matter goes to court. Svaty further wrote that by allowing the evidence to become public in court only delays, not prevents, the details from being known.
In addition, “protective measures in sealing the record are required in the interest of a fair trial for all parties. The potential for prejudice by early release of sealed affidavits outweighs the public interest in access under the facts and circumstances of this case.”
A matter of transparency
“We are very disappointed in this ruling,” Hoisington said. “It flies in the face of the public’s overriding right to know what’s going on in their community.
“The public needs to know if they are safe in their beds at night,” she said. Postponing the release of the details only creates uncertainty and anxiety, and leads to rumors and speculation that cloud the issue.
“It is also important to point out that preliminary hearings can be waived and charges can be pled,” Hoisington said. “If there are no preliminary hearings and the defendants plead, there will be virtually no record of the facts ever, except the factual basis stated in the plea hearings, which can be incredibly sparce.”
In addition, the lack of transparency calls into question if justice is being served, she said. “Are these young men being treated fairly?”
There are just too many unknowns that need to be clarified. This is all information that should be released, she said.
“Our state lawmakers saw a need for these affidavits to be a part of the public record,” she said. “They saw value in keeping the public informed, especially when traditional county attorney releases fail to adequately address basic information about a case.”
Judges and attorneys across the state may grumble about the requirement, but the fact remains that it is law, she said. “The ruling capriciously ignores the spirit and purpose of the statute.”
It is transparency that holds government and the courts accountable to the public and helps ensure equal access to justice, Hoisington said. “The secrecy surrounding this case is outlandish and should be cause for public concern.”