EXPLAINER: Why are court records sealed in 2 girls’ deaths?

Nov 20, 2022, 11:20 PM | Updated: Nov 21, 2022, 2:49 pm
FILE - A makeshift memorial to Liberty German and Abigail Williams near where they were last seen a...

FILE - A makeshift memorial to Liberty German and Abigail Williams near where they were last seen and where the bodies were discovered stands along the Monon Trail leading to the Monon High Bridge Trail in Delphi, Ind., Oct. 31, 2022. An Indiana judge could rule Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, if sealed court documents with evidence that led to a man’s arrest in the 2017 slayings of the two teenage girls will be publicly released. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana judge could rule Tuesday whether sealed court documents with evidence that led to a man’s arrest in the 2017 slayings of two teenage girls will be publicly released.

Richard Matthew Allen, 50, of Delphi, Indiana, was charged last month with two counts of murder in the killings of Liberty German, 14, and Abigail Williams, 13, but the court documents were sealed at the request of the local prosecutor.

State police have revealed incremental details since investigations began after the February 2017 double killing. But the public and the media have called for more information since Allen’s Oct. 28 arrest.

Those calls could be answered on Tuesday, providing a fuller picture of the killings that have haunted the northwestern Indiana city of about 3,000 — and where Allen lived and worked at a local CVS store.

Several news organizations, including The Associated Press, filed a brief with the court Monday urging Allen County Judge Fran Gull to unseal the probable cause affidavit and charging information. Gull — assigned to the case after the judge for Carroll County, where Delphi is located, recused himself — will hold a hearing Tuesday in Delphi to determine whether documents will be publicly released.

The brief argues in part that “the public interest is best served by public access to a prosecutor’s basis for filing criminal charges” and “to ensure government transparency and accountability — which is especially critical in criminal matters.”

WHAT HAVE AUTHORITIES REVEALED SINCE INVESTIGATIONS BEGAN?

On Oct. 31, authorities announced Allen’s arrest and that he lived in the same community where they found the girls’ bodies.

A relative dropped the girls off Feb. 13, 2017, at a trail near the Monon High Bridge, just outside of the girls’ hometown of Delphi, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Indianapolis. Hours later, they failed to show up at their pick-up spot, and the next day, their bodies were found in a rugged area near the trail.

The deaths of the teens, known as Libby and Abby, were ruled homicides, but police have never disclosed how they died or described what evidence they gathered. At the Oct. 31 news conference, police declined to answer questions on what led to Allen’s arrest, citing the sealed records and their ongoing investigation.

Shortly after the killings, investigators released two grainy photos of a suspect walking on the abandoned railroad bridge the girls had visited, and an audio recording of a man believed to be the suspect saying “down the hill.”

Authorities also released a sketch of the suspected killer in July 2017, and then another in April 2019 based on video released that month showing a suspect walking on the Monon High Bridge. The images and audio came from Libby’s cellphone. Authorities hailed her as a hero for recording potentially crucial evidence.

Then, in December 2021, state police announced they were seeking information from people who had contact with someone who used a fictitious online profile to communicate with young girls. State Police said investigators determined the profile “anthony_shots” was used from 2016 to 2017 on Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms.

Allen received public defenders in the case earlier this month, describing in a letter to Carroll Circuit Court earlier this month that he and his wife can no longer work.

WHY ARE THE DOCUMENTS SEALED?

Indiana law allows courts to withhold records in “extraordinary circumstances,” including if granting widespread access will benefit or harm the public. Such requests must be public and supported with “compelling evidence,” followed by a public hearing where a judge can approve or deny releasing that information.

Novella Nedeff, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, said she thinks the media attention the case received — as well as the nearly six-year gap between when the murders happened and when Allen was arrested — makes revealing details in the unsolved case like “walking on eggshells.”

The affidavit and charging documents related to Allen’s arrest have been under court seal at the request of Carroll County Prosecutor Nick McLeland. McLeland did not reply to interview requests left by The AP.

At the Oct. 31 news conference, McLeland described Allen’s arrest as “a step in the right direction.” He also said that sealing the records was about “protecting the integrity of this case.”

“While all cases are important, the nature of this case has some extra scrutiny with it, and so we — my office, me — felt it was important to seal those records,” McLeland said.

WHAT IS TO BE EXPECTED TUESDAY?

Sheryl McCullom, a crime scene investigator who is the founder and director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, said that sealing the documents is a “viable option” likely to protect a small town where the community members know each other.

While it’s unclear how the judge will rule, McCullom — who has appeared on television as a cold case consultant — said she guesses the documents could be unsealed after the hearing and that it is “probably, at this point, the right thing.”

“Part of going to work is courts are supposed to be public,” she said. “That’s for a reason. Everybody’s held accountable. It’s gotta be, doors open. Let people in. And I just think that’s probably, again, at this point, you know, the right call.”

Nedeff said families could be “very supportive of the investigators and being highly motivated not to jeopardize the investigation, even if it means not knowing things that they’d like to know.”

Becky Patty, Libby’s grandmother, shared on Facebook a link to a petition to keep the records sealed. The petition has garnered over 41,000 signatures.

Patty expressed concern the information, if unsealed, would be “broadcast all around the world” by the news media and social media users.

“We have seen throughout the last five and a half years the many innocent people that have had their lives turned upside down, pictures splattered all over, and accusations thrown out with no evidence to back them,” she wrote. “While they move on with no consideration to the damage they have done – those innocent people are left picking up the pieces and trying to move on with their lives.”

WHAT ARE NEXT STEPS IN THE INVESTIGATION, TRIAL?

At the Oct. 31 news conference, Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said the investigation was “far from complete” and if any other people “had any involvement in these murders in any way, that person or persons will be held accountable.”

The case has been followed closely over the years by true-crime enthusiasts who have offered plenty of theories. Carter urged people not to “subjectively interpret” the case while officers continue to gather information.

“If you choose to be critical of our silence be critical of me, not the front line,” he said.

Becky Patty defended McLeland in her Facebook post calling for the records to remain sealed, stressing the need for an impartial jury when the trial, scheduled for March, occurs.

“I understand people want to know – and they will know – in time,” she wrote.

___

Arleigh Rodgers is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Arleigh Rodgers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/arleighrodgers

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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EXPLAINER: Why are court records sealed in 2 girls’ deaths?