Should state police be exempt from testifying?
In fight over police-involved shootings, media join DA to seek open tesimony.
Pennsylvania state police say the public should be excluded from an upcoming court hearing in which the agency is seeking to suppress a grand jury report on how it investigates troopers who fatally shoot suspects.
A coalition of media companies disagrees.
On Tuesday, The Morning Call and two other media groups sought to intervene in a legal battle between state police and Northampton County District Attorney John Morgan el li, whose grand jury is preparing a report expected to be critical of the agency’ s long time practice of investigating its own when a trooper uses deadly force in the line of duty.
Th emotions by The Morning Call, The Associated Press and PA Media Group of central Pennsylvania say the public has a constitutional right to open court proceedings. The filings came three days before a hearing Friday on state police’s bid to shut down the g rand jury, which President Judge Stephen Baratta has scheduled in his robing room, outside the public eye.
Morg anelli and state police have been at loggerheads since May, when troopers fatally shot a suicidal Lower Mount Bethel Township man, but would not relinquish their probe to a detective from Morganelli’s office. Morganelli has been vocally critical of that policy, which he says risks public confidence at a time of national scrutiny of shootings involving police officers.
In September, Morganelli cleared the two troopers involved, Eddie Pagan and Jay Splain, announcing they were justified in shooting 47-year-old Anthony Paul Ardo. But Morganelli said the same g rand jury that reached that conclusion would issue a second report containing recommend ati on son whether it was appropriate for state police to seek to keep their investigation in-house.
It is that second report state police hope will never see the light of day. The agency is asking Baratta to prevent the public filing of the
report, or to disband the grand jury altogether, arguing it is overstepping its bounds.
Tuesday’s filings by the media groups do not weigh in on that larger issue, but insist that arguments in the case must be held in public. The groups’ attorney, Craig Staudenmaier, cites the state constitution, which provides that “All courts shall be open,” and says state police fail to make a convincing argument against access in such “a matter of significant public concern.”
“Furthermore, public confidence in the process and findings of the grand jury, particularly involving an event like this, will be extremely undermined and will raise public concern and perhaps outrage that such proceedings are shielded from public view,” Staudenmaier wrote.
Morganelli has asked for a public hearing on the state police motion, saying it is in the public interest. Arguments on Morganelli’s request are also scheduled to be heard Friday by Baratta, and those are slated to be done in public, according to the media groups’ filings and Morganelli.
State police say the g rand jury’s investigation should have ended with the decision to clear the two troopers of wrongdoing in Ardo’s death.
By seeking to issue the second report, state police say, the grand jury is improperly straying from its mission of investigating crimes within Northampton County.
In a filing last month, the agency war ned of a “potentially dangerous precedent” if district attorneys are permitted to use grand juries “merely to pursue their own policy interests.”
State police oppose holding arguments in open court, saying it would jeopardize the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and delve into “non-criminal matters” that “may not ever warrant public disclosure.” The agency notes that its commissioner, Tyree Blocker, appeared before the panel in September, and says the substance of his testimony shouldn’t be aired publicly.
Tuesday’s filings by the media groups maintain that state police are overstating the reach of grand jury secrecy. Witnesses called before a grand jury are free to discuss their testimony in public, the filings said, unless specifically prohibited from doing so by the supervising judge.
There is “no blanket veil on secrecy as argued by the state police,” the media groups said.
The clash between Morganelli and state police erupted after Ardo’s May 20 shooting, when Morg anelli said he wanted an independent investigation led by county detectives, only to be told by state police they were keeping it inhouse.
Morganelli points to best practices endorsed last year by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association for how police-involved shootings should be handled.
The guidelines said an independent agency should conduct the probes, though the local department may play a role “in supporting or coordinating” the effort.
State police have defended their approach, saying they have a breadth of resources and strict protocols to ensure the investigations are done thoroughly, transparently and fairly.
The agency “feels strongly that the department has the necessary resources in place to conduct unbiased, independent investigations at all times, to include critical incidents such as trooper-involved shootings,” state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said in a prepared statement last month.
“Moreover, the local district attorney’s involvement, assistance and role as final decision maker ensures the integrity of the process.”
The Nor thampton County district attorney is fighting to remove the “veil of secrecy” that allows state police — shown here with Nanticoke police in October — to not testify before grand juries.