Third District Judge Sheila McCleve ruled Tuesday that a letter written from a jail inmate to another judge that somehow involves the case of a man charged with killing a corrections officer can be released to media lawyers.
The document was provisionally sealed by 3rd District Judge Deno Himonas and McCleve ordered that it remain sealed, allowing it to be read only by attorneys for the Deseret News.
"No disclosure to anyone," McCleve said.
The letter, referred to in court documents as the "Cobb letter," presumably has some reference to the case of Curtis Michael Allgier, 30, who is charged with capital murder in connection with the 2007 shooting death of corrections officer Stephen Anderson.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office has announced it will seek the death penalty if Allgier is convicted of killing Anderson.
Attorney Jeffrey Hunt, who represents the Deseret News, argued that he and two other lawyers in his firm need to be able to read the letter so they can prepare legal briefs and arguments for future litigation that could make the letter's contents public.
Hunt argued that the letter should be released on an "eyes only" basis to media attorneys for three reasons: because this is the fair thing to do; this is consistent with a Utah Supreme Court ruling regarding another case as well as procedures followed in other high-profile cases; and it would not jeopardize Allgier's chance to have a fair trial.
Media attorneys should be on the same footing as the prosecutors and defense attorneys in regard to this matter, he said. Without access to the letter, it is nearly impossible to argue that it should be made public.
Defense attorney Ralph Dellapiana, however, argued that the letter is not from any of the parties directly involved in Allgier's case.
Furthermore, both the defense team and prosecutors have agreed that they will not be using the letter as evidence for either side.
As for the media lawyers' right to access, Dellapiana said the Supreme Court ruling and procedures used to open records in other cases applied only to evidence that would be part of such things as preliminary hearings or trials, which are public record. This would not apply to a letter written by someone not a party to the case that got sent to the courthouse, he said.
McCleve said the court would provide a sealed copy of the letter to Hunt and his firm, and he assured her that it will be locked up and its contents will not be released to anyone else, including his media client.
The judge also emphasized that the letter could be used only for future court proceedings regarding making it public and not as a means to leverage any other information. McCleve emphasized she did not want Allgier's right to a fair trial jeopardized.Allgier, 29, who was in court Tuesday, is being held in the Salt Lake County Jail on no bail.