Twin Falls ‘Times-News’ Denied Sealed Court Documents in Murder Case

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A state judge has refused to unseal court documents in the case of an elderly man accused of wounding his wife and shooting her boyfriend to death a year ago.

Fortino Leon of Jerome is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated assault in the attack on his estranged wife, Maria Leon, 41, and her boyfriend, Javier Zavala-Paniagua, 22, in July 2008.

On April 16, 5th District Judge Jason Walker closed a pretrial hearing, reversing an earlier ruling that the public and news reporters would be allowed to attend. Walker said he changed his mind to preserve the defendant?s right to a fair trial.

The Times-News of Twin Falls challenged the closure, as well as orders to seal some documents filed in the case. The newspaper?s lawyer argued that such business should be open to public view and that closing the court erodes the public?s civil rights.

The judge held his ground May 1, denying a motion to unseal the documents, although he agreed to unseal minutes from the closed hearing.

Walker said Leon?s case is essentially open to the public.

The disputed documents, which include physician reports, concern Leon?s mental capacity and ability to stand trial. Last year, Walker ruled that Leon was not competent for trial, and he was placed in the state Correction Department?s Secure Medical Program in November.

Lawyers for Leon and the prosecution argued to keep the documents sealed and praised the judge?s ruling. Jerome County Prosecutor John Horgan also questioned the newspaper?s reason for seeking the records.

?We?re talking about the newspaper wanting to have some salacious information,? Horgan told the judge.

The lawyer for the Times-News, Fritz Haemmerle, called that ?insulting.? Editor James Wright said the newspaper ?brought this action on behalf of everyone in Idaho, because we believe that the public has a right to know what its courts are doing.?

Wright said he was considering whether to appeal the ruling.

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