Missouri appeals court orders records be made public

A Missouri appeals court has ruled that a judge wrongly closed records in a criminal case against a former police chief and has ordered the file to be made available to the media.

An attorney for a newspaper that sued to see the records said Tuesday that the decision is a significant victory for the public’s ability to keep tabs on government officials.

“When public files are closed, the public justifiably becomes distrustful of its government,” said Farmington attorney Tom Burcham, who represented the owners of the Daily Journal in Park Hills. “We view this as a blow that’s been struck in favor of the public trust.”

At issue was a felony forgery and misdemeanor stealing charge filed against former Leadington Police Chief Cledith Wakefield, who resigned last February after about 25 years on the job. In an April 8 plea agreement, prosecutors decided not to pursue the felony charge and Wakefield entered an Alford plea to the misdemeanor charge, in which the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors likely could prove the charge.

Then-Circuit Judge Bill Seay suspended the imposition of Wakefield’s one-year probation sentence and ordered the case file to be closed. When a newspaper reporter showed up at the Iron County courthouse at 10 a.m. on April 8 — the day Wakefield’s trial was to begin — the reporter was told by court officials that Wakefield’s case had already been disposed of earlier that morning and the filed had been closed.

On appeal, state attorneys representing Seay argued the file was required to be closed because one of the charges against Wakefield was not pursued and the imposition of sentence for the other charge was suspended. But a three-judge panel of the Southern District state Court of Appeals noted that the Missouri law closing such cases applies only after the case is “finally terminated.”

Consequently, the appeals court panel ordered that the newspaper should have access to anything that was in Wakefield’s court file before Wakefield completed all of the terms of his probation on July 30.To deny access to the records would defeat the purpose of Missouri’s open-records law, the appeals court said.

Seay, who now is the prosecutor in Crawford County, said Tuesday that allowing public access — even if only for a limited period of time — to court files in cases where a sentence is suspended essentially negates the confidentiality typically provided by such sentences.

But, Seay said, “the Court of Appeals people are infinitely more smart than I am.”

Seay said Wakefield had asked for the file to be closed and the prosecutor had not objected. He said he decided to close the file partly because it included some unusual terms of probation — most notably that Wakefield would have to surrender his state law enforcement officer’s certification.

When told about the appeals court ruling by The Associated Press, Wakefield said, “this is pretty pathetic,” and then hung up the phone.

Burcham said it was especially important to open Wakefield’s case file because he was a public official accused of wrongdoing.

“It certainly appears form the outside that Wakefield was being treated differently — and, frankly, extra-legally — than a typical litigant,” Burcham said. “It looks bad and it undermines people’s faith in government.”

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