By Rick Mills
The Morning Sun
Mid-Michigan doesn’t see very many murders, but the killing of 68-year-old Floyd Dennis of Harrison caught our attention for another reason: The almost total lack of information about him, his accused killer or the circumstances surrounding his death. Police wouldn’t talk; the prosecutor wouldn’t talk.
Unofficially, from social media, online comments and other sources, we knew the accused killer, Oanh K. Bass, 32, was involved with her victim (treasurer of a local school district) in a sexual relationship and that the two shared a fondness for casino gambling. Word was that loans of some kind were involved and that she may have been paying off a financial debt with favors.
In almost any major criminal case, we look at the affidavit for the arrest warrant. In Michigan, that’s a “probable cause” document where the lead investigator describes why law enforcement believes a crime was committed and that the suspect did it. It’s used to obtain the arrest warrant from the prosecutor.
This time, we were not allowed to see the document. Both court personnel and the prosecutor cited the “56-day rule” in closing it.
I’d never heard of such a thing and started digging. After becoming convinced that no such rule existed, I had two attorney friends do some research of their own. Neither of them could find such a rule.
It became obvious that the court was using a rule that applied to search warrants in Michigan – those can be closed, not “must” be, but “can” be – for 56 days. That makes sense. Oftentimes search warrants yield nothing, are related to an ongoing investigation, or could point to a target who isn’t actually involved whatsoever.
Efforts to convince the magistrate, prosecutor and judge that the affidavit for arrest is a public document – in person, on the phone and by email – proved fruitless. They stuck to their magic 56-day rule and would not listen to arguments that no such rule existed.
Finally, I went there myself. Earlier efforts had been handled in person by our reporter; I’d exchanged emails with the judge. I wanted to make sure that if the record was indeed sealed, that it had at least been done properly. Research had shown what I already knew: In Michigan, sealing a court document is not easy, not quick and is taken so seriously that the Supreme Court and State Court Administrator must be notified.
Our court magistrate refused to discuss the issue with me, refused to hear my point, and refused to release the document even after admitting that proper procedures had not been followed. She also refused to let me talk to the judge.
My two columns detail my effort to not only see the key document we sought, but to teach the elected officials of the proper procedure for sealing court documents in Michigan.