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Prosecutor, Family Attorney Criticize Lamorinda Patch Coverage of Merrick Case In Times Story

A county prosecutor and attorney representing the family of a minor child allegedly victimized by a local teacher detailed their reasons for barring the public from future hearings in Friday's Contra Costa Times.

A story in Friday's editions of the Contra Costa Times included comments sharply critical of Lamorinda Patch and its coverage of the case of Michael Merrick, a Stanley Middle School teacher in custody on 17 felony counts of sexual misconduct with a minor.

The story, written by Times reporter Malaika Fraley and published under copyright, detailed a request for closure of all future "substantive" hearings by county prosecutor Johanna Schonfield and former prosecutor Richard Madsen, currently hired by the victim's family.

Judge Clare Maier's decision to grant the request for closure was reported in a story Jan. 18.

Today's Times story said court officials and observers regard the judge's decision as "largely unprecedented in Contra Costa County's criminal courts."

Johnny February 27, 2011 at 02:34 AM
I sat on Mr. Merricks couch throughout video production class.......:(.
eliz February 27, 2011 at 03:01 AM
A lot of people know who the girl is and as far as I can tell, no one wants to hurt her in any way. It is inevitable; people talk. Maybe even her parents told their friends. This is not the big issue here. A lot of people know Merrick's family and have for many years, maybe all his life. No one wants to hurt them in any way, either. But, people know who they are and know his children who clearly will be subject to criticism. None of this is their fault. Consider this from all sides please. There are a lot of children involved here. They cannot be protected completely. They will all live through it. The Patch has done a good job reporting and allowing people to express feelings and thoughts. None of it is gossip. It spawns discussion of many related issues. Its all good.
John K. February 27, 2011 at 05:26 AM
Police departments give unredacted copies of police reports to the District Attorney's Office. It is the job of the District Attorney's Office to redact ("black out" certain info) in the reports after they have filed charges and before they distribute copies. How could a police department give a redacted copy of a report to the DA's Office, does that make sense at all? My main point was why was the Patch asking for the report in the first place? They should have known that a sexual assault report, especially when the victim is a juvenile, is not a public record. So either they didn't know (incompetence) or didn't care and asked for a copy anyway (disgusting). Shannon you said that you agree with Chris that it's the primary responsibility of the government to keep the confidential information confidential, I agree. BUT what does that say about a reporter who asks for a confidential report and then uses the information to write a news story? I say in this case it was shameful because the person hurt is a teen who's already suffering from this incident. Believe it or not I'm generally a fan of the Lamorinda Patch, I just feel in this case they went overboard in what they put in a story and the victim was further victimized. I understand why everyone on here is rushing to defend the Patch, it's the local "hometown paper" for Lamorinda. But I think if the victim was their daughter they would be singing a different tune.
Danielle February 27, 2011 at 05:35 AM
Well, let's see..... could it be that IT'S THEIR JOB? Could it be the district attorney's office didn't do theirs? Sounds to me, at least, that a few people want to shoot the messenger when it appears the messenger played down the story across the board, as people here say.
John K. February 27, 2011 at 05:54 AM
The messenger wrote too much of a message, which allowed some to identify the victim. Irresponsible journalism.
Chris Nicholson February 27, 2011 at 06:03 AM
Not to nitpick, but is it really true that the police report is not a public record? The concept of redacting sort implies the expectation of release of an edited version at some point. It matters because you are suggesting that it was wrong for anyone to request the records at all. Is it really so obvious to anyone (it wasn't to me) that it would be improper to request the records? If it was/is so obvious-- wouldn't it be MORE obvious to the DA (lawyers specializing in criminal law and procedure)? Anyway, once again, it's regrettable if the girl's suffering was increased by people discovering her identity and harassing her. I am certainly not happy with that result. That said, I'm not sure that I would lay the bulk of the blame on Patch.
bryan February 27, 2011 at 06:13 AM
I don't agree. It seems that there was an element in town out to out the girl for some reason, if the lawyers are to be believed. I don't know how doing that would benefit the patch, and it's pretty plain to see from the prior stories that they made sure not to do that. Laying that at their door is a stretch and disingenuous IMO. Frankly, after reading the Times story, I'm beginning to believe that one of the parties here is looking for a scapegoat and used the Times to make that accusation public - which it did with relish for reasons that are obvious to me, at least. At any rate it also seems that a smart First Amendment lawyer might be interested in tackling the judge's decision to close the case to members of the public. That struck me as a stretch and unusual, as even the Times pointed out.
John K. February 27, 2011 at 06:23 AM
Yes some police reports are not public record, reports dealing with sexual assault are not. There is a CA Penal Code section and a Government Code section that deal with Victim's Rights and their right to privacy. Most police reports are redacted in some way because 1 copy goes to the Defense Attorney. If your car got broken into or you got into a bar fight with some guy would you want his lawyer to have your home address, phone number etc? No you wouldn't, so it is redacted. Chris, it isn't obvious to you because (presumably) you're not in the criminal justice system, but the lawyers, cops, clerks etc do know the rules. And the reporters who cover the criminal justice system know them too, like I said they either didn't know or didn't care. Pick one: Incompetent or Disgusting.
bryan February 27, 2011 at 06:29 AM
Neither.
John K. February 27, 2011 at 06:34 AM
So Bryan then you believe that it was ok for the Patch to request a copy of a confidential report that dealt with the sexual assault of a minor? And after receiving that report writing a story that had enough information for some people to identify that minor?
Chris Nicholson February 27, 2011 at 06:46 AM
John K: Can you cite me code sections? I've poked around and only see the obligation to not disclose the address and identity of the victim. I see nothing that makes all records confidential. Frankly, that fact that a court order (which was characterized as highly unusual) was required to close files and proceedings seems inconsistent with your assertion that such records are automatically confidential and that this fact is obvious...... Furthermore, the CC Times article reported on a conference amongst cops, prosecutors and judges around the novelty of this issue and the need to do a better job at redactions. Again, inconsistent with your characterization of the rules, no?
Chris Nicholson February 27, 2011 at 06:54 AM
@bryan: I agree with you on the scapegoating. Somebody in government screwed up and yet they are not accepting responsibility. How about: whatever should not have been disclosed publicly by the cops/DA/courts should not have been disclosed publicly. Isn't that the primary issue?
John K. February 27, 2011 at 07:57 AM
CA Penal Code 293 and Government Code 6254(f)(2). The court order was to close the proceedings not the reports and the conference was about whether or not to close the proceedings.
AJ February 27, 2011 at 10:21 AM
I wonder then (re: a twitter comment by patch) why would you remove such a simple! comment asking why you described cows (kept on a farm) as wildlife? This may be a 'silly' question/comment of mine, but if such a minor comment is removed (I'm assuming it caused someone to lose face- since it was just erased without explanation) it does make me question the censorship factor. If such a truly, tiny and simple thing was removed, what about the bigger items? How would I know which comments were kept or erased? For the record this was NOT an inflammatory comment I made. I did not swear or state anything non-factual. Again, it's not the magnitude of my comment, it's the erasing that makes me question Patch. I don't condone swearing or anything unethical or not related to the matter at hand- had this been the case, there would have been no argument from me. Again, this is a VERY tiny item bringing a big question to my mind, what is kept as a 'comment' and what isn't? And why no explanation either to my email or under my comment? The reason I am interested in this....look at some of the very constructive comments where people who know their stuff, really have something to offer- I seriously learn and appreciate their input! I want to make sure I hear what they are saying, I also want to hear if it's something untrue! Keeping the comment and replying does the job the best, UNLESS a comment reveals for ex. a child's identity or something that should not be revealed by law/ethics.
Martha Ross February 27, 2011 at 03:05 PM
JD, Excellent idea to write a story about the Times report and then give your readers a forum to debate the original article, the reporting of crimes involving sexual assault victims, the actions by court officials to close the hearings, and the Times report. With regard to the Times report, I'm curious about why it was copyrighted. Couldn't the Times have just done a story saying many of the hearings will be closed and then let the prosecutors and attorneys say why? I can't help but feel that the Times took particular delight in bashing a Patch site. At least, with this forum right here, and others as well, Patch is allowing for more transparency about how it gathers news than the Times does.
J.D. O'Connor (Editor) February 27, 2011 at 03:36 PM
Note to AJ - I haven't the foggiest idea of what you're talking about. If you dropped in a comment that made little or no sense or had no bearing on the discussion it is entirely likely it was stricken. We don't get many of those but when we do they are removed as disruptive/distracting.
bryan February 27, 2011 at 04:57 PM
YOU say it was confidential and that they used their, what did you say now I can't remember, but anyway you say they snuck in and somehow coerced the innocent court clerk or police officer to give them the information. I call bull**it on that one as you can't get ANYTHING out of the courts or police they don't want to give you and even then it's nearly all a black smudge - it was an accident report in my case and yeh I tried.
Carol Ann Long February 27, 2011 at 05:09 PM
I would like to know who the "local attorney" was who contacted the prosecutor to say he or she had been contacted by "parents" in the community trying to access the girl's name. In my opinion that accusation would help an attorney make their case for closing the case to public view. There's something else going on here. I'm not sure what it is yet but I hope people keep asking questions. I don't believe there's a conspiracy or anything but I do believe their is some manipulation going on and it would be nice to see who's pulling the strings.
Bill Paxton February 27, 2011 at 05:57 PM
Whether reports are confidential or not, the police don't distribute them. Reports must be obtained from a source other than the police.
Chris Nicholson February 27, 2011 at 06:34 PM
John: I think you're being a bit loose in casting aspersions. Police reports are Public Records. Most public records MUST be disclosed on request. Some Public Records are not REQUIRED to be disclosed as a blanket rule (the agency involved sets the rules). Police reports are in this category. This is VERY different from saying (as you have said) that police reports are "confidential" and that any request for one is improper. Agencies are specifically authorized to disclose more than what is required (Gov Code 6253(e)). I mean, many police departments have an online form to request a copy. E.g.: http://www.sunnyvale.ca.gov/Departments/PublicSafety/RecordsPermitsLicenses/ObtainingaPoliceReport.aspx
Chris Nicholson February 27, 2011 at 06:34 PM
What makes you think that? http://www.sunnyvale.ca.gov/Departments/PublicSafety/RecordsPermitsLicenses/ObtainingaPoliceReport.aspx
natalie johns February 27, 2011 at 08:41 PM
Since his comments are nearly identical to those given to the times I supposed we should presume that Jack is either one of the attorneys involved in the case or a member of the child's family?? That would explain some of the acid and repetition of his phrasing. If it were my child I'd be upset and want someone to pay to. But trying to paint the media as demons out to destroy a child's reputation seems to be a pretty far stretch to me, as good as it might make you feel to say it. The big question to me would be why? What do they have to gain? And in fact if you read their old stories they are pretty much by the book. On the other hand a person or persons interested in diggingup anything they could in the girls background might push to find out who she is, going to the attorney mentioned to see if she had a "past." It's despicable, but it's pretty common tactic to, isn't it?
Lafayette Curmudgeon February 27, 2011 at 09:10 PM
As they say in Australia, Dolly, you've got it in one.
Annie R. February 27, 2011 at 09:31 PM
Google the "California Public Records Act." You'll find answers to your questions. Shame on the families who attempted to learn the girl's identification by using their "contacts."
Chris Nicholson February 27, 2011 at 09:54 PM
I did. Believe me. I think my summary above is accurate: although there is no absolute right to an unredacted police report, as long as information regarding the alleged victim's identity and address are removed, there is no state law PROHIBITING their release. In terms of using contacts to get her ID. That whole story just sounds fishy. I am trying to imagine how multiple people would think to call the same atty to ask him to get her ID from the DA. All involved would have to know how horribly wrong that would be. So much so that the story is a bit suspect.
Dolly February 27, 2011 at 11:51 PM
Something is going on with this case. I'm not sure what or why but the CC Times article wittingly or unwittingly has exposed something odd.
eliz February 28, 2011 at 09:47 PM
JohnK: I wonder why you care what was said. The kid's identity was not revealed by Patch nor was anything that could be "hints" about who she is. Nor can I believe that anyone in Lafayette would harass her. I think Dolly is right. Someone is stirring the pot and for reasons unclear...
Nicholas March 01, 2011 at 04:06 PM
Has anyone suspected that this may be an excuse to further restrict public access to public records and trials??
Danielle March 01, 2011 at 08:11 PM
This has really turned out to be an interesting thread. I saw this in the Times today and have to wonder --- they can seek out sealed documents relating to a juvenile sex crime but Patch is wrong for asking to see arrest records on a similar case?? Anyone else see this as really sort of hypocritical at least? "(Judge) Phimister refused to unseal grand jury transcripts and other court records. Bay Area News Group and other media members are seeking the documents, which include Phillip Garrido's mental health records and detailed testimony that Dugard gave to the grand jury. Phimister, in a 10-page ruling, found that releasing the transcripts and health records before jury selection would prejudice the couple's right to a fair trial."
Deborah March 05, 2011 at 04:03 PM
I concur with eliz. This has been my experience. There has been heartwarming compassion for Merrick's family and also respect for the victim/survivor, and the family's courageousness. (In my circles, anyway.) It is not talked about, other than to check in about whether or not kind support is needed. There is a big difference between malicious gossip and talking about an issue to shine light for greater understanding so that malicious gossip is mitigated.

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