DENVER — A federal judge on Thursday said a Colorado rule requiring life-long secrecy by grand jury witnesses is unconstitutional, paving the way for witnesses in the JonBenet Ramsey grand jury probe to speak about their testimony.
In throwing out the rule, U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel called it an impermissible restriction of First Amendment free-speech rights.
Daniel made the ruling in a suit filed last year by Linda Hoffman-Pugh, a former housekeeper for John and Patsy Ramsey . Hoffman-Pugh’s suit claimed she wanted to write a book but was fearful she would be prosecuted if she divulged information that she shared with the grand jury.
Noted New York attorney Darnay Hoffman, who represented Hoffman-Pugh, said the decision would free others who testified before the grand jury to tell what they know. He said enterprising journalists could “win a Pulitzer Prize” by digging into the testimony of the grand jury witnesses.
Boulder County Deputy District Attorney William Nagel said Daniel’s ruling will be appealed to U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nagel did not request a stay of Daniel’s order until the appeal is decided, meaning any of the Ramsey grand jury witnesses are free to speak.
The ruling does not allow grand jury witnesses to divulge such things as what questions they were asked and does not allow them to comment on the proceedings of the jury.
The Ramsey grand jury met for more than a year before disbanding in October 1999 without returning any indictments. Then-District Attorney Alex Hunter, at the conclusion of the grand jury, vowed that the proceedings would remain secret forever.
In declaring the rule unconstitutional, Daniel said it was “virtually identical” to a Florida law overturned 10 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. Nagel argued the two cases were different because the Colorado rule — unlike the one in Florida — did not prohibit witnesses from discussing information they knew before testifying.
The Colorado rule prohibited witnesses from discussing their testimony unless or until an indictment was issued or in the event a report was issued in the absence of an indictment. The Ramsey grand jury was not permitted to issue a report, and those who served on the jury are still sworn to silence.
Nagel argued the Colorado rule provided “a good balance between free speech and the criminal justice system.”
Daniel surprised the attorneys who were arguing the case when he ruled from the bench in granting Hoffman-Pugh’s motion for a summary judgment, declaring the rule unconstitutional. Prior to the hearing, Hoffman said he believed there was “no chance” Daniel would rule immediately and predicted the judge would issue a written ruling days or weeks from now.
Daniel gave an indication of how he might rule shortly after the hearing began. He told Nagel he was concerned the rule constituted an “indefinite and permanent” silencing of witnesses.
Daniel said the federal courts — and courts in 40 states — allow grand jury witnesses to discuss their testimony as soon as it is completed.
“The suggestion here is that there is some sort of problem with the Colorado law,” he said. “What information are they seeking to keep her from revealing?”
Daniel said that in order to restrict free speech, there must be a showing of “compelling governmental interest.”
B.J. Plasket can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 451, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.