Lawyers for confessed Yosemite murderer Cary Stayner are trying to keep sealed court records they say could prejudice his pending trial in connection to three murders.
At the request of a group of news organizations, including The Associated Press, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii last month ordered that all court documents in the federal case be unsealed, but delayed the release of two key items until Stayner is sentenced Nov. 30 in the slaying of a Yosemite naturalist.
The court papers in question spell out why prosecutors sought the death penalty for Stayner. Stayner has pleaded guilty to the 1999 killing of Joie Armstrong in exchange for a life sentence.
The documents, sealed in U.S. District Court in Fresno, had been sealed to protect Stayner’s right to a fair trial.
With his Sept. 13 guilty plea, however, there was no longer a need to keep the papers secret, the media argued.
Among papers lawyers are trying to keep sealed is a document prosecutors filed to prove Armstrong was killed in “an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner,” one of the aggravating factors that support a death sentence. Armstrong, 26, who led children on nature hikes in the park, was decapitated.
The document also includes portions of a confession Stayner gave to authorities, sources have told The AP.
Defense lawyers said Friday that releasing the documents and a defense brief opposing the death penalty could jeopardize Stayner’s right to a fair trial in the case of three Yosemite sightseers he is also charged with killing. That case is pending in Mariposa County.
“This could prejudice jurors in the state case,” said defense attorney Marcia A. Morrissey of Santa Monica.
The judge is expected to rule on Morrissey’s request before Stayner’s sentencing on Nov. 30. Morrissey has also appealed Ishii’s unsealing order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Stayner is awaiting trial in connection to the February 1999 murders of Carole Sund, 42, her daughter Juli, 15, and their Argentine friend Silvina Pelosso, 16.
Last month, the judge said he didn’t have the authority to keep the federal documents sealed after sentencing. Stayner was charged in federal court because Armstrong was killed in a national park.
The Sund-Pelosso party had been staying at Cedar Lodge, a remote and rustic motel outside the park’s western gate, where Stayner, 39, lived and worked as a handyman.
Media groups seeking the documents include The AP, The Chronicle Publishing Co., McClatchy Newspapers Inc., the Hearst Corp., and Knight Ridder Inc.