How a Denver Post Reporter Found That Thousands of Colorado Court Cases Have Been Hidden From Public View
David Migoya describes how he discovered someone could be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for a crime in Colorado without anyone outside of law enforcement ever knowing who, how, why or whether the process was fair.
Unlike many of the stories we do, this one did not begin with a tip from a source.
It was February 2017 and I was looking into an appeal filed by convicted murderer Aaron Thompson, but I could find no mention of the case — either his conviction or the appeal — on any of the public-record computers the state provides for courthouse searches.
That seemed odd since the case had drawn so much media attention. After a little bit of digging at the Colorado Court of Appeals, I learned it had been suppressed because of the nature of the case and the child victims involved.
I had never bumped into entire cases that were suppressed. Rather, it was common to find prosecutions and civil cases in which specific documents were suppressed from public view because of the sensitive information they contained: embarrassing details of an assault; personal financial details; illegally obtained confessions or evidence.
I began to take note of other reporters in the newsroom mentioning criminal prosecutions that were difficult to cover because the cases were suppressed. I wondered just how many of these cases existed. No one had cobbled it together.
I quickly learned why: You can’t know what you don’t know if there’s no easy way to know it.
Suppressed cases did not appear on any public-records database. Yet it seemed incomprehensible that someone charged with a crime would not appear on any public record — not their name nor the charges they faced.
I approached the Public Court Administrator’s office, the people who keep the computer records of all the court cases in Colorado, to see if there was any way to come up with a tally of the cases that were suppressed. Was there a code they used? Was there anything that might allow me to know how many there were?
There was: A single abbreviation, “suppr,” was used to connote the case was restricted from public access.
I asked the state to make a count of any case where the code appeared at any time over the past five years. It took them two weeks, but eventually we obtained the following table:
I was floored.
What came next was a very long learning curve of how cases are suppressed, why they were suppressed, where that happens and how frequently. But ultimately the reasons behind the judges’ suppression orders remain hidden from view until a case is unsuppressed. The thousands that remain suppressed include the orders that sealed them.
Through dozens of requests for additional data – we are not allowed to access the state’s raw data for the court system, so we’re guessing about our problem-solving solutions – we were able to land the hardest and most damning detail of all: More than five dozen criminal felony cases remain suppressed even though the defendants have been tried, convicted and sentenced, some to lengthy prison terms.
Ultimately the investigation allowed us to conclude that someone could be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for a crime in Colorado without anyone outside of law enforcement ever knowing who, how, why or whether the process was fair.