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Kirkland police gave TV station slaying files by mistake
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
The Kirkland Police Department said Tuesday it mistakenly turned over to a Seattle television station about 300 pages of confidential investigation files related to last week's fire at a home in which the bodies of four people were found.
The files included police reports, notes and other documents, along with photographs and videotapes of the suspect in the killings, Conner Schierman, who has been charged with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of arson in the July 17 deaths.
Defense attorneys called the release of the information outrageous but said it ultimately would have little bearing on the case.
The materials were turned over to KING-TV in response to a public-disclosure request, said Kirkland Police Lt. Bradley Gilmore, who took responsibility for the error.
KING-TV used the materials in its Monday night and Tuesday morning news reports, with a reporter on camera holding what he described as 300 pages of materials provided by the department.
Gilmore, who is the department's public-information officer, said KING-TV agreed Tuesday to stop broadcasting reports based on the materials and had returned the materials to police.
Gilmore said the implications of the disclosure are unknown, and Kirkland police are meeting with the King County Prosecutor's Office to discuss how it will affect the case. The Prosecutor's Office had no comment Tuesday on the disclosure.
KING-TV acknowledged that the materials were given to it by mistake but said it routinely files disclosure requests in investigations.
Pat Costello, executive news director, said the station was surprised at the volume of material it received.
He said he explained to police that it was impossible to pretend the disclosure never took place. "I told them we can't put the genie back in the bottle.
Costello said the station had returned the original materials.
Costello said the station was not broadcasting any information it thought might jeopardize the prosecution.
"We try to take the high road," he said.
Still, Costello added that he never had seen a case where hundreds of pages of evidence were released. Most media-information controversies involve things like leaks from unnamed sources, he said.
"It's new territory for us as well," he said.
According to state law, materials involved in an active police investigation are not subject to public disclosure.
The news broadcast showed what were described as photographs police took of Schierman at his arrest, including some showing what appeared to be cuts on his face. Also released were videotapes the station aired that appeared to show Schierman buying cans of gasoline at a convenience store about a half-hour before the fire was reported at 11:32 a.m. on July 17.
Olga Milkin, Lyubov Botvina, and Milkin's two small boys, Justin and Andrew, were stabbed multiple times before the fire was set, police said. No motive has been given for the killings.
Gilmore said a five-day deadline for a response to the KING-TV disclosure request was approaching and he granted the disclosure. "I made a mistake, and it shouldn't have happened."
By Tuesday, other news organizations, including The Seattle Times, made their own disclosure requests to Kirkland police. Gilmore said those requests were under review.
Schierman's attorney, James Conroy, said he finds the incident amazing and inappropriate but doesn't think it alone could result in his client's acquittal.
"It's a very sad commentary to the extent my client has been tried and convicted in the press," Conroy said.
Conroy said part of his amazement comes from the fact that he has not been able to get access to the police materials himself. "I haven't received one page of discovery."
Courts normally set up formal schedules specifying when such items as documents and photographs have to be provided to attorneys.
Conroy said to have the materials turned over to a third party and then broadcast is something he's never encountered.
Conroy said he doubted a court would seriously consider a request for dismissal of the charges on the basis of the disclosures, although he said he would expect to bring the matter to a court's attention.
Other attorneys also doubted whether the disclosure might allow Schierman to go free.
Richard Hansen, a Seattle criminal-defense attorney, said he couldn't remember a similar situation, but the disclosure is unlikely to result in Schierman's freedom.
"Mostly, it will restrict his right to get a fair trial," he said, and such questions as where the broadcast was made and whom it reached will be part of the court proceedings.
"All of which, in the end, is not going to matter," said Hansen, because of the magnitude of the charges.
"It's outrageous that they did it," he added, "and what it's doing to the victims' families."
Hansen added that it still probably would be possible to seat an impartial jury with members who never saw the broadcasts.
Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company