Thousands of court cases across Colorado — hundreds of them involving violent felonies — are hidden from public view, concealed behind judges’ orders that can remain in effect for years, The Denver Post has found.
More than 6,700 civil and criminal cases have been restricted from public access since 2013, usually by judges who agreed to a request from prosecutors or defense lawyers to shield them, The Post found. Of those, 3,076 are still under suppression orders that keep the details away from the public — 345 are felony criminal cases — as they work their way through the legal system, according to state computer records.
Until recently, no information about any of the suppressed cases was available publicly — not the names of the defendants, the charges they faced or even the identity of the judges who closed them — until The Post began questioning the practice.
The Post identified 66 felony cases that remained closed to the public — including homicides and sex crimes requiring registration as a sexual offender — even though the defendants had already been convicted and sentenced, some to lengthy prison terms.
In every suppressed case, The Post found, the judge’s suppression order and the reasons supporting it are shielded from public scrutiny. Courthouse employees and many law enforcement officials, including prosecutors, will not even acknowledge the suppressed cases exist, The Post found.
That means someone could be arrested, charged, convicted and sent to prison in Colorado without anyone seeing why, how or where, and whether the process was fair.
“This sounds like the Star Chamber to me,” said Alan Chen, a constitutional law professor at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, referring to the 15th-century English court chastised for arbitrary rulings and secret proceedings. “Colorado is one of the worst states in terms of access to criminal court records for reasons I really have no explanation for. I’ve not heard of this being practiced anywhere else in the country. It’s frightening that if anything improper is going on, no one will know about it or have any way to find out.”
Although courtrooms remain open to the public, including hearings for suppressed cases, the only way to know when a hearing is to occur is to be there when it is scheduled. A Denver Post reporter happened to attend one hearing in which a murder suspect pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and no public record of the event existed. The only way to learn the defendant’s name was to be there when the judge announced it.
According to interviews and analysis of cases that were later opened to the public, the reasons behind a suppression order are varied: Prosecutors don’t want to alarm other members of a drug ring as they’re being rounded up; the case involves a juvenile defendant; or law enforcement says a criminal investigation is ongoing. Civil cases have been suppressed as well, typically — though not all — to shield victims of abuse or sexual assaults from publicity.
But there are other reasons as well. The Post found one criminal case — that of a board member and part-owner of the Broomfield Academy charged and convicted of felony sexual assault of a child and misdemeanor child abuse — in which prosecutors requested and received a suppression order to avoid publicity. The case remains suppressed.
It found another — of a member of the Adams County 14 school board eventually convicted with attempting to lure a child for sex — in which the judge ordered the suppression at the outset, without anyone even asking for it, because the judge “had concerns about releasing information,” records obtained by The Post show. The case remains suppressed.
The case of Clifford Galley, 28, convicted of attempted first-degree murder, was one of a number The Post found that remained suppressed long after the defendant went to prison. Galley was sentenced to 169 years in prison and won’t see freedom in his lifetime. Documents related to the case were suppressed after his arrest in 2013 and no one except for his lawyer, prosecutors or a judge could see them. Last month, a judge lifted the suppression order after The Post asked prosecutors questions about it. His appeal, however, remains suppressed.
Denver Post emails to several of the judges responsible for suppressed cases went unanswered except for one, and that judge passed it along to state court administrators to respond.
Suppressed cases are different than those sealed by the court, the reasons for which are limited by state law. Sealed cases are restricted to those where a defendant was exonerated or, under certain conditions, the case was dismissed, such as with a deferred sentence. Some low-level drug felonies can also be sealed under specific criteria.
By contrast, a judge may suppress a case for any reason at his or her discretion — usually, but not always, at the request of lawyers in the case, but most frequently prosecutors. Once a case is suppressed, it remains so until a judge reopens it, which The Post found often does not happen because neither defense lawyers nor prosecutors ever bother to ask.
“This isn’t right; it can’t be right. It’s a chance for them to victimize our family all over again,” said Mark Chalfant, whose son, Mark, was killed in a Taco Bell parking lot in Aurora in July 2014. Four teenagers were convicted in the case — one as a juvenile — yet all the records remain closed under suppression orders three years later.