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Court battle over sealed records in U. Va. lacrosse murder case

The next hearing scheduled for the accused killer of a University of Virginia lacrosse player is set for June 10. But while the main court action awaits, a side battle is waging over records related to the case that have been closed to the public.

The legal box within a box was at the center of a Tuesday hearing in Charlottesville concerning search warrants issued after the May 3 death of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love, 22, of Cockeysville. The hearing sought to reveal the legal reasoning behind a judge's decision to seal information in warrants that are part of the investigation.

Fellow lacrosse player George W. Huguely V, also 22, of Chevy Chase is charged in Love's killing.

Defense attorneys for Huguely did not ask for the records to be closed, according to a letter released in court Tuesday. In that letter, Huguely's attorneys, Francis McQ. Lawrence and Rhonda Quagliana said that they didn’t seek to seal materials connected to the search warrants and had not taken part in any hearings or communications regarding a sealing order. The defense team said they "take no position" on whether the documents should be kept out of public view.

Search warrants that describe what or who has been searched in an ongoing criminal case, what items are found and the probable cause for the search, typically are open to public inspection at a courthouse.

In the immediate aftermath of Love's death, three warrants were reviewed at a courthouse by news media. Information in the search warrants showed that police said Huguely told them he had fought with Love on the night she died, shaking her as her head repeatedly hit a wall.

As the case proceeded, however, the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the City of Charlottesville said information in the search warrants was sealed and not available.

The order explaining why those records are closed to the public was itself sealed by a judge -- an action that violates state law and Virginia Supreme Court guidelines, according to a petition filed May 11 by The Washington Post and other news organizations.

During the Tuesday hearing, The Post, The Daily Progress, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Associated Press, asked Albermarle County Circuit Judge Cheryl V. Higgins to order the clerk of courts to unseal the judge's order that sealed the search warrant information.

The news groups argued that Virginia Supreme Court guidelines require that the public be given specifics about why and which records are sealed and have a chance to oppose that action. Without an open record, attorney Craig T. Merritt further argued on behalf of the news organizations, there is no public information about when records were sealed, how long they would remain out of view and at whose behest they were put under seal.

Alexander Francuzenko, an attorney for the clerk of the court, told the judge that the news groups were using "a backdoor-type challenge" to open the records and should have filed a different type of legal action-- not directed at the circuit court clerk -- to have the seal order reviewed. Francuzenko asked the court to dismiss the news groups' request.

After the Tuesday morning hearing, the judge said she needed more time to review the issues and would announce her decision on May 26.

The news media brief and the clerk of courts brief both can be seen online (PDF).

-- Steve Yanda and Mary Pat Flaherty

By Mary Pat Flaherty  |  May 19, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Document Room , From the Courthouse , Mary Pat Flaherty , Updates , Virginia  
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