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Citing local, national publicity, Clay County judge seals details on Andrew Lester case

Andrew Lester before Judge Louis Angles.jpg
Posted at 10:28 AM, May 31, 2023

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Details associated with the criminal charges of last month’s shooting of Ralph Yarl, 17, will be sealed, Clay County Judge Louis Angles ordered Tuesday.

Earlier this month, attorneys representing Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old man charged with felony assault and armed criminal action in connection to Ralph’s shooting, argued the case should be sealed.

Lester pleaded not guilty to the charges in an April 19 court hearing.

RELATED | Complete Ralph Yarl coverage

The Clay County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office argued against the effort to seal the case.

In his ruling Tuesday, Judge Angles cited national media coverage of the incident.

LINK | Judge Angles’ ruling

“In a legal context, this ongoing reporting continually reinforces an account of the occurrence which Defendant disputes, and which will taint the possibility of empaneling an unbiased venire,” Angles wrote in an eight-page ruling.

The judge included statements made by public figures such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry, Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian and Viola Davis, as well as political figures ranging from Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas to President Biden regarding “getting justice” in the case.

“These statements implicitly communicate to the public that the alleged actions of the Defendant are indefensible,” Angles wrote. “Defendant also claims he will be jeopardized in his ability to effectively utilize the Missouri Supreme Court Rules of Criminal Procedure, including, but not limited to a change of venue, to remove the ongoing taint of pre-trial publicity.”

The judge’s ruling echoes concerns raised by Lester’s attorney, Steven B. Salmon, made in a May 2 court hearing.

“Given the present publicity of the instant case, a future trial on the evidence with a jury will continue to reduce the size and qualification of potential jurors,” Salmon wrote in a motion to seal the case.

In arguing against sealing the case, Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson said in a May 16 response that the judge should work to strike a balance in maintaining the public’s “legitimate interest in access.”

“Legal precedent on this matter has established a strong presumption in favor of the public’s right to access,” Thompson wrote.

Thompson further argued the judge must outline a clear reason for sealing the case.

“Occasions may arise when it becomes necessary for the Court to protect a case from publicity that would jeopardize the parties’ ability to conduct a fair and legally sound trial. However, it is also important that the Court recognize the legitimate public interest in transparency within the criminal justice system,” Thompson wrote. “It is an equally important foundational principle in the legal system that ‘justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.’”

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Angles specifically highlighted public discourse surrounding the possibility of a racial motive.

“The information thus far made public by the State has led to a significant amount of speculation and reporting, especially about racial motivation,” Angles wrote in the ruling. “Such conjecture of a racial motive in the reporting of this case negatively affects Defendant’s fundamental right to a fair trial on the merits.”

Angles said Lester’s attorneys could argue his actions were reasonable, but that option could be taken away given ongoing coverage.

“The overwhelming majority of the reporting continues to assert that the alleged actions of Defendant were racially motivated, which if believed, virtually eliminates the defense available to the Defendant related to the reasonableness of his actions,” the judge wrote.

Angles also cited the publishing of Lester’s cell phone number, which led to Lester receiving harassing text messages and phone calls.

KSHB 41 News spoke with attorney Kevin Jamison, who's been practicing for 40 years. His expertise lies in self-defense and criminal defense law.

"Justice is hard," Jamison said. "But justice has to be even-handed. It's necessary sometimes to put a blanket over the proceedings so it goes forward with a certain degree of civility."

Jamison is not involved in the Lester case but says he understands why Angles decided to seal the case, meaning the public won't be able to access online resources like Casenet to see what documents each side files in the case.

"Motions and some of the behind-the-scenes workings of the trial will not be available as they are in any other case," Jamison said. "Anybody can get online and see what's going on in any other case."

In the past, Jamison says other high-profile cases have gotten out of control and have affected the trial's outcome. While sealing a case is extremely rare, Jamison says the judge's role is to be a "neutral umpire."

"Things of this nature indicate there should be a calming influence on the case, and the only tool the judge has to do that is to seal the case," Jamison said.

In response to Angels' ruling, the Clay County Prosecuting Attorney's Office issued a statement.

"Our office is dedicated to following the law and accepts the ruling of the Court," per the attorney's office. "We can assure that our office will continue to be as transparent as legally permitted throughout this process. Our focus remains squarely on achieving justice in this case."

Last week, Ralph’s aunt, Faith Spoonmore, Ph.D., told KSHB 41 anchor Caitlin Knute the teen is still working to return to normal life.

Ralph was among those who participated in a walk Monday to raise awareness and money for brain injuries.

“He still has these moments where he’s hanging out with his brothers, you hear them laughing, you see that kid comes back, he seems to be happy and smiling, and he comes back for a little bit,” Spoonmore said. “But then he has these moments where he sits in the corner and folds up.”