Special Circuit Judge John Fogleman has filed his order mostly denying requests from ABC News and the Arkansas Press Association to release more information in the murder case against Rebecca O’Donnell in the slaying of former Republican Sen. Linda Collins of Pocahontas.
The formal order follows indications Fogleman had given at an earlier hearing on media intervention in the case.
The media intervenors particularly sought the release of the unredacted warrant for the arrest of O’Donnell in Collins’ slaying at her home, search warrant information and documents related to pleadings in the case. A partial release of information indicated Collins was fatally stabbed and that O’Donnell appeared on security video at Collins’ home.
Fogleman said Arkansas criminal court rules indicate such documents are to be publicly accessible unless a judge finds “good cause” to withhold them.
In this case, Fogleman said good cause existed for the documents to remain sealed. He said he based his decision on his experience as a trial judge and prosecutor while acknowledging great public interest in the case.
He said he’d observed many cases in which jurors had been influenced by outside factors.
He said the release of these documents could influence jurors, consciously or subconsciously, and harm the court’s ability to have a fair trial. He said that the small population of Randolph County already means it will be hard to seat an unbiased jury on account of relationships and knowledge of the case. More documents could contribute to that, even though some might not be relevant in the trial.
He said he’d considered alternatives — jury questioning, change of venue, sequestration of the jury — but found they’d not be solutions.
The judge did slightly modify the order preventing comment by parties in the case. Attorneys on both sides remain subject to the gag order. Also, law enforcement agencies may not disclose investigative matters. He did not include the Crime Lab in the order but noted that it rarely made statements about pending cases. He also declined to cover the FBI with the order, saying it was outside his jurisdiction.
He noted that everything filed in the case since Jan. 20 has been open to the public. He said that will continue, though parties wishing to seal documents may submit them to him first and request secrecy. He said the Randolph County clerk may release documents filed in the case except those that are sealed and he thanked the clerk for posting case records online, an improvement over the past practice in the county.
The capital murder case is set for trial Oct. 19, with a pre-trial hearing Friday. Since this case was filed, O’Donnell has been charged in Jackson County with soliciting fellow jail inmates to kill Collins’ ex-husband, former Judge Phil Smith, and tamper with evidence in the case against O’Donnell.