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San Diego County sheriff, medical examiner refuse news requests for information about girls' murders [Updated]

April 23, 2010 |  4:08 pm


The San Diego County Sheriff''s Department and Medical Examiner's Office on Friday declined requests from news organizations to release documents about the murders of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. Both public agencies referred the requests to their legal advisors.

News organizations, including The Times, requested the investigation and arrest reports from the Sheriff's Department and autopsy records from the Medical Examiner's Office.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge David Danielsen refused a request from the King family to seal all records from the case. He also dropped a gag order issued March 9 on prosecutors, defense attorneys and investigators.

Registered sex offender John Albert Gardner III pleaded guilty last week to the murder and attempted rape of both teens. He is set to be sentenced June 1 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Media attorney Guylin Cummins argued before Danielsen that the documents are necessary for news organizations to fully report on the high-profile cases. But attorneys for the King family argued that Chelsea's parents, Brent and Kelly King, and her 13-year-old brother, Tyler, would suffer additional trauma if documents such as the autopsy reports are made public.

San Diego attorney Edward Patrick Swan Jr., representing the Kings, said that the Victims'  Bill of Rights passed by voters in 2008 should allow for the sealing of records. The measure, also known as Marsy's Law, extends privacy protection to the families of crime victims.

But Danielsen disagreed, saying he sees nothing in that law that prohibits the disclosure of some records. He did not, however, order such disclosure, leaving the decision to law enforcement agencies holding the records.

Within minutes of Danielsen's ruling, Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis and Sheriff Bill Gore announced that, despite the gag order being dropped, that they would continue to remain silent on the case. Dumanis said she would attempt to convince all law enforcement agencies to do the same.

On Monday, the same issues of disclosure versus privacy are expected to be examined as news organizations go to court seeking the unsealing of 10 search warrants from the case. Whether the King family will oppose the unsealing of the warrants is unclear.

Danielsen also left open the potential for the King family to appeal his ruling about disclosure of other records.

Two San Diego television stations bowed to the King family request and did not quote from a deposition given to the court by Brent King explaining how his family would be harmed by disclosure of facts about his daughter's murder and the postmortem rape examination done on her.

"Whenever we see or hear about the heinous crimes which took the dignity and life of our beloved Chelsea, we have nightmares and panic as we visualize how she must have spent her last few minutes and seconds of her life," Brent King wrote.

Gardner admitted to strangling Chelsea King, 17, of Poway, and stabbing Amber Dubois, 14, of Escondido, both during rape attempts. King was killed in late February, Dubois a year earlier.

Gardner was initially linked to King's murder by DNA found on a scrap of clothing discovered near the jogging path at Lake Hodges where she was attacked. Gardner, once arrested in the King murder, led investigators to Dubois' skeletal remains.

[Updated at 5:10 p.m.: Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, said the issue pits the media's traditional role as the watchdog of public officials, including those in law enforcement, against the need not to sensationalize crime news and inflict pain on victims’ families.

“I personally don't think it serves the public interest to share all details of the crime, and especially all details on how the victim's family are coping,” Nelson said. “We need an aggressive news media, but not a news media without sensitivity and compassion. “

Although some San Diego journalists are concerned that should the King family succeed in sealing documents, it could lead to more public records being closed, Nelson doubts that would happen.

"Judges will be more inclined to seal future cases if the news media go the route of sensationalism instead of showing some restraint," he said.]

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: John Albert Gardner III in court. Credit: Associated Press