Judge won’t unseal documents in California family’s deaths

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) – A judge has denied news media requests to unseal search warrant affidavits and other documents in the prosecution of a man accused of killing a California family of four whose bodies were found in desert graves.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith said Friday that releasing the information could compromise the continuing law enforcement investigation and jeopardize the defendant’s due process rights.

The judge also granted a request by defendant Charles “Chase” Merritt to represent himself as long as a doctor says a medical condition will not be a problem.

Merritt is accused of killing Joseph and Summer McStay and their two children. They vanished from their San Diego County home and their bodies were later found buried in San Bernardino County. Merritt has pleaded not guilty.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

More than a dozen media outlets are asking a California judge to unseal search warrants and other documents related to the murders of a family of four whose bodies were found in shallow desert graves.

News organizations including The Associated Press argue that San Bernardino County authorities can’t keep the documents sealed because the case is now a prosecution and not an investigation.

The motion seeks the unsealing of search warrants, affidavits, statements of probable cause and returns related to the investigation.

Joseph McStay, 40; his wife, Summer, 43; and their children Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., 3, disappeared from their home in the San Diego County city of Fallbrook in February 2010. The case went unsolved until someone driving an off-road vehicle discovered their bodies in shallow desert graves in November 2013 in nearby San Bernardino County.

A year later, San Bernardino County sheriff’s officials arrested Charles “Chase” Merritt in their deaths.

Merritt pleaded not guilty to murder last year but authorities have not revealed what led them to him nearly five years after the family disappeared.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Vos argued in court papers that the investigation is still ongoing and unsealing the warrants now would jeopardize it.

He urged Superior Court Judge Michael Smith to leave the warrants under seal until a preliminary hearing set for later this year.

Search warrants unsealed last week in San Diego County showed that police there found a tall lamp lying on a bedroom floor and open suitcases containing folded clothes in the walk-in closet of the McStays’ home. Two bowls of slightly spilled popcorn were on a living room couch and a carton of raw eggs and bowl of microwave popcorn were left on a kitchen counter.

Merritt’s attorney, Robert Ponce, has argued that releasing the documents publicly would taint the jury pool.

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