Closed access to murder case document questioned, challenged

Winston Corbett

GOSHEN — Details about why Winston Corbett of Goshen was arrested as the suspect in a Goshen College professor’s murder seven years ago remain secret to all but those intimately associated with the case.

The Elkhart County Prosecutor’s office, with a judge’s order, locked access to what’s normally public information in a criminal case after Corbett was arrested on Oct. 28.

The 23-year-old faces a murder charge and a Level 1 felony charge of attempted murder, accused of taking James Miller’s life and injuring Miller’s wife, Linda Miller, during a burglary and struggle at the couple’s home in Goshen in October 2011.

In seeking to seal public records in the case, notably the probable cause affidavit — a document summarizing case details and justifying a suspect’s arrest or a search — Prosecutor Vicki Becker argued for the necessity to protect the integrity of information in a still ongoing investigation.

The Goshen News began a legal process this week, challenging the lack of access.

Journalists, a legal expert and Indiana’s Public Access Counselor questioned the prosecution’s move, which is a rare legal tactic, since it prevents the public from seeing why investigators named Corbett as the suspect in Miller’s homicide.

“I’m at a loss to figure the scenario off the top of my head where releasing the probable cause affidavit could impinge an investigation that has already produced an arrest, and it doesn’t appear from the indications of the comments it’s depending upon or anticipating future arrests,” said Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.

From his perspective, Key described the move as an “extremely unusual situation.”

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt couldn’t think of a scenario off the top of his head where a probable cause affidavit had to be sealed, agreeing circumstances to warrant such a move are rare.

Britt said an affidavit can lay out factual elements of a crime without providing detailed proof. He also questioned the argument for protecting the investigation.

“To the extent that it could compromise an investigation, I’m real skeptical of that,” Britt said, adding he doubted media coverage of public information would taint the case. “Just because it gets media coverage isn’t proof-positive that it’s going to compromise an investigation.”

Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, expressed concern about the state being able to withhold information in a system fundamentally based on openness and accountability.

“Transparency in the government is a very good thing. The government operating in secrecy, generally in my opinion, is a bad thing,” Gurulé said. “They should not be permitted to exercise that kind of power in the dark.”

Given the stakes — Corbett could face decades in prison if convicted of the murder and attempted murder charges — Gurulé believes prosecutors need compelling, justifiable reasons for not disclosing public information in the case.

“There has to be some good reason in the interest in justice that the document be sealed,” Gurulé said.

He listed reasons for sealing an affidavit, including fears information in the document could tip off other potential suspects or witnesses if an investigation is still underway, could endanger a witness if their identity is disclosed, or could lead to interference with evidence.

Gurulé was a prosecuting attorney for nine years before he joined Notre Dame’s faculty, he noted, and admitted in that time he also filed to seal affidavits in a “handful” of cases as rare circumstances to protect investigations.

ARGUING FOR RESTRICTION

Becker said the case against Corbett is one of those rare situations where the affidavit includes sensitive information, and making it public could interfere with the ongoing investigation.

“There are additional witnesses and some things that are unfolding as we speak that we have to follow up on. And if we don’t do that, or if that information is out there from a public source, then it totally destroys the credibility of it,” Becker said. “Generally speaking, the umbrella that catches it all is there’s something about what we have learned in the investigation that we can’t disclose yet because things are continuing to be learned or ongoing to corroborate or contradict. And if that information comes from a public source, then you can never say that it’s intimate knowledge on the part of someone that’s a material witness or maybe even involved somehow.”

Blocking public information in a case is not a decision Becker makes lightly, she indicated. The prosecutor’s office moves to seal affidavits in less than 1 percent of the approximately 10,000 cases the offices files each year, Becker estimated.

Such instances tend to involve higher-profile cases like murders or major drug-dealing offenses where witness identities, like confidential sources or undercover investigators, need to be protected, she said.

Notable recent cases where public records were sealed include the murder cases against Santori Dorsey and Amber Pasztor.

Dorsey, 20, of South Bend faces sentencing Thursday after he was convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit robbery charges last month stemming from the death of Lenell Williams during a robbery in Elkhart in August 2017. The prosecutor’s office moved to seal a probable cause affidavit when the case against Dorsey was filed that September. The office then had the documents unsealed a couple months later, court information shows.

Amber Pasztor of Fort Wayne pleaded guilty in June 2017 to killing her two children in Elkhart in 2016.

Pasztor’s attorney, Peter Soldato, moved to seal the records in that case with support from Becker in March 2017. Both sides agreed hundreds of pages of Department of Child Services records were unjustly released by the juvenile court, and they feared having the documents in the open could have violated Pasztor’s due process rights.

The Goshen News then sued to prevent the sealing of the entire case. Soldato withdrew his motion to seal records and The Goshen News dropped its case about a week before Pasztor made her guilty plea, court information shows.

The decisions to seal records in the Pasztor, Dorsey and Corbett cases all varied, Becker said.

“There’s a lot of different reasons that we would have to protect information,” Becker said.

WHAT WE KNOW

Corbett’s arrest came almost exactly seven years after the murder of James Miller, a Goshen College biology professor.

An intruder attacked Miller’s wife, Linda, after breaking into the couple’s home near Goshen College in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2011. Linda Miller was seriously injured as James Miller fought off the intruder, but in the process James was also grievously injured. He collapsed and died outside the house, and the intruder fled, according to Becker’s description of the crime on Oct. 30, when she announced Corbett’s arrest.

The Elkhart County Coroner at the time found James Miller died from multiple blunt force and sharp force trauma wounds. Few other details were released.

Fast-forward to Becker’s news conference in 2018, she credited science and persistent police work with leading investigators to arresting Corbett, who was 16 years old at the date of Miller’s murder. She gave no information on the science that helped result in Corbett’s arrest, except to say modern advancements today were not available to investigators in 2011.

Corbett was arrested Oct. 28. A probable cause affidavit and the motion to seal public records were filed on Oct. 30 in Elkhart County Superior Court 1. Magistrate Dean Burton signed the order to seal “the Affidavit in support of Search Warrant,” that day, court information shows.

The case charging Corbett with counts of murder and attempted murder was filed in Circuit Court on Nov. 2. He made his first appearance in court on Nov. 8 where a not-guilty plea was entered and a trial date for next March was set.

ACCOUNTABILITY ACTION

The Goshen News filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Monday to obtain a copy of public records. The court denied the request, citing legal codes and a judicial rule allowing the document to remain confidential, court information shows.

Key explained the need for the media to pursue access to public records as serving as a check on government activity while also encouraging the public to demand accountability.

“The burden lies with the government agency to make a valid argument or point to a particular statute that allows that level of secrecy,” Key said. I would hope that (people) always question and wonder why the public is being denied access to a record, either directly to their own request or to the media.”

Gurulé agreed taking action for the sake of accountability.

“I do think that the press have a right to access the info,” Gurulé said.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 316.

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