July 10, 2013

Attorney seeking to seal affidavits in Maine child's death

The action comes as the Press Herald requests documents related to the case of a 2-year-old whose body was found in a car in Stetson.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BANGOR – An attorney for the Auburn woman who is charged with murdering her 2-year-old daughter last month filed a motion late Tuesday to seal all search warrant affidavits associated with the case, after the Portland Press Herald requested the documents earlier in the day.

click image to enlarge

Leanna Norris

Contributed photo

Superior Court Justice Ann Murray is expected to rule on that motion Wednesday.

Leanna Norris, 24, was arrested July 3 and charged with murdering her daughter, Loh Melody Grenda, whose body was found in a car in Stetson on June 23. Police have not said how the girl died, and the results of her autopsy are still pending.

Murray approved a motion filed by Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson on July 3 that called for two search warrant affidavits in the case to be impounded until Norris' first court appearance.

Norris appeared on July 5 at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor and pleaded not guilty to one count of murder. She was ordered to be held in jail pending a bail hearing that has not yet been scheduled.

Benson's motion to impound the affidavits confirmed the existence of two separate warrants that state police requested for searches on June 24 and June 27. The motion does not say what was searched, and Benson would not provide more information.

The prosecutor did say that since Norris has been arrested and formally charged, the state no longer has a reason to request that the search warrant affidavits remain sealed.

Police have released few details about the child's death, and there are no other court documents associated with the case. In many homicide cases, detectives file affidavits of probable cause that detail the facts, to support an arrest. In Norris' case, however, the investigation was presented directly to a grand jury, whose deliberations are secret.

Sigmund Schutz, the Press Herald's attorney, said Tuesday that court documents should be made public as a matter of course.

"The law says that search warrant affidavits, once returned, are made public in all manner of cases," said Schutz. "It's important because it sheds light on the circumstances of these charges but also because we don't want the government searching and seizing for private reasons.

"If there is cause for a seal, it should be narrowly tailored, not a blanket seal," he said.

According to a court clerk, Justice Murray kept the search warrant affidavits sealed Tuesday because Norris' attorney, Martha Harris of Bangor, said Friday that she planned to file a motion to have the documents sealed.

A formal notice wasn't filed until late Tuesday, after court officials told Harris that the Press Herald was requesting the documents.

Harris' motion asks for the affidavits to be impounded "until such time as the defendant's counsel has reviewed discovery of the matter." The request says "it could be detrimental to the defendant's case if any search warrant affidavits are released to the press prior to defense counsel's receipt and review of discovery."

State law says search warrant affidavits "shall be treated as impounded until the return is filed."

After that, they are considered public records. A judge can impound them further, but the order must say why the documents are impounded.

Court rulings have held that, for documents to be sealed, a judge must demonstrate a good cause.

Although a court reporter was present for the grand jury presentation on June 26, there is no transcript of those proceedings.

The request by the state to have a court reporter at the grand jury proceedings indicates "the state expects to call witnesses who will be hostile either during the grand jury presentation or later during any potential trial," according to the prosecution's motion to have a court reporter present.

The motion did not provide additional details.

Police have not said why a full week passed between the grand jury's indictment and Norris' arrest.

 

Eric Russell can be reached at 791-6344 or

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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