By Ziva Branstetter
TULSA, Okla. —
A Tulsa judge’s order to seal all records involving a material witness to a quadruple slaying is among records in more than a dozen criminal cases ordered sealed in the past year in Tulsa County District Court.
Tulsa County prosecutors say such cases are rare, but records indicate they are occurring with more frequency in Tulsa and statewide. Advocates for open government are alarmed at the trend, and a measure to curtail the practice is moving through the state Legislature.
Tulsa County District Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith said judges have ordered individual records in 14 felony cases and a few misdemeanor cases sealed since Jan. 1, 2012. Most of those records relate to medical issues, such as mental competency of criminal defendants, or juvenile records, Smith said.
Others deal with requests for communications wiretaps that authorities wanted sealed “for obvious reasons,” she said.
“It’s things that are confidential by operation of law that had impact in a filed public record case,” she said.
Smith said it is highly unusual for all criminal records in a case to be sealed except for cases that are expunged as allowed by law. Sealed records are more common in civil cases, she said.
Federal judges order criminal records sealed far more often in general. Numerous records were initially sealed in a federal case resulting in charges against six former Tulsa police officers and a former federal agent. Many records in the investigation were sealed until the Tulsa World made the matter public.
‘Witness to material facts’
State court judges have traditionally been more reluctant to seal records.
In Tulsa County District Court, records sealed in the past year include documents related to material witnesses held in two homicide cases. In both cases, judges who once served as assistants in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office sealed the records.
In August, Tulsa District Judge Bill Musseman approved the sealing of records in a double homicide case at a Tulsa Best Buy store. Musse-man ordered the records — an application for a warrant and the warrant itself — related to material witness Shania Craven unsealed in October, records show.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office requested a judge to seal all records last month regarding another material witness, Susie Pauline Canady, 25. Canady is being held as a material witness in the killings of four women at the Fairmont Terrace apartment complex near 61st Street and Peoria Avenue on Jan. 7.
The request and the order sealing the records cite general concerns about Canady’s safety and the integrity of the investigation. The request states Canady, who lists a Vinita address, is “a witness to material facts associated with an ongoing homicide investigation.”
Other court filings indicate police were unsure about the credibility of her statements, but the records remained sealed more than a month.
Her criminal record shows she was most recently charged in Craig County with bail jumping in October 2011, although the charge was later dismissed. Other charges against Canady in Craig County go back to 2006 and involve burglary.
State law allows officials to hold a person who is a material witness to a crime if the witness is believed to have information and is not cooperative or is a flight risk.
Associate Tulsa County District Judge Dana Kuehn ordered all records involving her case sealed on Jan. 11 and held several hearings in the case during the past month, records show.
Kuehn barred a World reporter from attending a hearing in the case Friday.
First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond said the case was sealed to protect the integrity of the investigation and to protect the material witness. Drummond filed a request Thursday to unseal the records, which was granted by Kuehn.
Canady has been in the Tulsa Jail since Jan. 11 but — until the order lifting the seal — no public records were available that identified her or showed whether she has been charged with a crime.
As of Saturday evening, her name and mug shot did not appear on records showing prisoners being held at the Tulsa Jail. Kuehn’s order states that arrest and booking records held by the jail and Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office “shall no longer be sealed.”
Jail officials released Canady’s arrest and booking report, which indicates she provided details to police about how the women were bound and shot.
Additionally, Tulsa police apparently released false information to the public regarding Canady’s arrest.
In a story posted on its website Jan. 11 that cited anonymous sources, the World reported a material witness in the case had been questioned and arrested. Several hours later, the Tulsa Police Department released a statement to local media saying no arrests had been made in the case.
Records show Canady was arrested by Tulsa police at 4 a.m. Jan. 11, 12 hours before the department’s press release stating: “There have not been any arrests made in connection with the homicides.”
“Please be patient and consider the credibility of information that may be released from non Tulsa Police Department sources,” the release states.
Police Chief Chuck Jordan said Friday the department “misspoke” in the press release. He said the intent was to say that police had not arrested anyone suspected of direct involvement in the slayings and the public’s help was still needed.
“There was no intent to mislead people,” Jordan said.
At least five people are being held in the Tulsa Jail on complaints that include being a material witness to a crime.
Since December 2006, law enforcement officials have jailed 294 people in the Tulsa Jail on material witness complaints, records show.
Joey Senat, a board member of FOI Oklahoma Inc., said the way in which Canady’s records were sealed is alarming. FOI Oklahoma Inc. is a nonprofit organization that promotes transparency in government.
“It is scary that someone can be locked away in a jail almost with complete secrecy. ... It seems like sealing court documents has become the knee-jerk reaction in both criminal and civil cases,” Senat said.
Tulsa County Presiding District Judge William Kellough said judges determine whether to seal records based on individual laws requiring confidentiality, such as with juvenile records, or “common law concepts.” Judges balance the public’s right to know how its government operates versus need for confidentiality in a “case-by-case analysis,” he said.
Kellough said as presiding judge, he has no authority to review decisions by other judges to seal records.
“I haven’t reviewed Judge Kuehn’s decision, and there really is no occasion for me to do that,” he said.
The state’s material witness law requires a judge to explain constitutional rights to the defendant, including the right to a court-appointed attorney. Records show Kuehn held an arraignment for Canady on the day of her arrest, advised Canady of her rights and provided her with a pauper’s affidavit to obtain an attorney.
Kuehn could not be reached for comment regarding the case. Canady is represented by attorneys Stephen Lee and Mark Cagle.
Kellough said it’s possible that he as presiding judge could become involved “if it were apparent to me that there were a large number of these actions taken.”
“It’s sometimes necessary to seal a case briefly. ... Again it’s a balancing act.”
A state Senate panel approved a bill Tuesday that would limit the sealing of court records. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 1041 by Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, which says court records could not be sealed unless authorized by the Oklahoma Constitution or state law.
World Staff Writer Curtis Killman and World Researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.