Court: Secret hearings should have included defense attorneys

Daniel Holtzclaw sits in court during his jury trial. (KOKH/FILE)

Court records will remain sealed from public view in the case of an ex-cop serving a more than 200-year sentence for sexually assaulting women while on duty. However, the court did lift some of the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the appeal of Daniel Holtzclaw for more than a year.

The ruling made public several court filings, but included redactions of what the court called confidential employment records of a city employee.

RELATED: Secret court hearings held in Holtzclaw case

Lawyers for Holtzclaw had sought records pertaining to the request for a secret court hearing as well as details as to what happened during the two-day secret hearing.

In newly unsealed records, lawyers for Holtzclaw relied on FOX 25 reporting of the court hearings and the substance of what was being examined by prosecutors and the judge. Holtzclaw’s lawyers did not find out about the hearings until after they happened and were not invited to participate.

RELATED: Videos reveal who took part in secret court proceedings

Justices with the Court of Criminal Appeals said in a new ruling that “Defense counsel should have had the opportunity to participate fully in that in camera hearing, but counsel’s absence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Defense attorneys argued they were not allowed to cross examine witnesses or address the district judge’s decisions to withhold information. The court said because the attorneys have since been provided transcripts of the secret hearings their request to not accept the district judge’s ruling was “moot.”

The court filing included copies of four previously sealed court orders, but contained multiple redactions of the record. The court said the blacked out, or omitted, portions of the filings contained confidential material from the employment file of an Oklahoma City employee.

That employee is the police chemist whose testimony and conclusions have come under scrutiny during the appeal.

The appellate court ruling argues that the open records act gives the city the ability to use its own discretion in withholding those records. Attorneys for Holtzclaw argued they should have been able to legally challenge the judge’s ruling that the city could pick and choose what to withhold.

The hearings, first reported by FOX 25, focused on the work of police chemist Elaine Taylor. She retired from the police department lab in February of 2017 after questions about her work on the Holtzclaw case were first raised.

RELATED: Male DNA identified but not disclosed during Holtzclaw trial

Three months after her resignation and just days after some of those concerns were raised in legal filings in Holtzclaw’s appeal the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office asked prosecutors to report pending cases in which Taylor was a witness.

The email chain would lead to exchanges that included Deputy Police Chief Johnny Kuhlman, who also testified before a judge and prosecutors on the first day of the secret hearing. The email over testing concerns included a warning that some prosecutors were unaware of the retesting DNA concerns and warned of the potential impacts it might have on their cases.

RELATED: Oklahoma City finds 4,000 deleted emails connected to controversy of cop's conviction

The emails reveal several criminal cases have been marked for retesting since the identification of concerns with Taylor in the Holtzclaw case.

Prater told FOX 25 at the time his request was only related to Taylor’s retirement and not to any concerns his office had about her work. Taylor had retired in February, three months prior to the email chain.

“The Court of Criminal Appeals ruling did open the door to the potential of a new evidentiary hearing. Court records indicate Holtzclaw’s attorneys may view the still-sealed documents in the case and submit a supplemental application for an evidentiary hearing.

In a statement to FOX 25 following the new court ruling the family of Daniel Holtzclaw wrote:

Daniel is an innocent man who was wrongly convicted based on fatally flawed forensic evidence, a biased and incompetent police investigation, and prosecutorial misconduct. He did not receive a fair trial. The bottom line on the new ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals is that it affirms Daniel's and our belief--as well as the opinion of legal observers nationwide -- that the secret hearings were also flawed and wrongly denied his lawyers access to the process.
We look forward to the timely adjudication of Daniel's appeal. We are glad Daniel's lawyer will be allowed to amend Daniel's motion for an evidentiary hearing and that the briefing schedule has been set.
We hope and pray the court comes to the same conclusion that six internationally-renowned scientists did when they reviewed forensic analyst Elaine Taylor's work:
Daniel deserves a new trial.”

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