In the first ruling of its kind in his 23-year judicial career, a judge on Wednesday sealed a hearing amid concerns that evidence later ruled inadmissible, if publicized, could prevent Brett Seacat from obtaining a fair murder trial.
Kingman County District Court Judge Larry Solomon said extensive media attention surrounding the case could bias a small pool of jurors eligible to decide the fate of Seacat, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife, Vashti Seacat — a 34-year-old mother of two. The case has drawn attention from the news media and public, leading Seacat’s attorneys to request a sealed hearing.
Several media outlets, including The Wichita Eagle, opposed the motion for closure.
“I have an extremely small county and an extremely small jury pool” compared to other counties where high-profile cases have been heard, Solomon said in court. He said he expects to call 12 to 15 percent of the eligible pool — fewer than 5,000 people — to complete juror questionnaires, which is “unheard of in this county.”
Kingman County has a population of 7,853 — relatively low compared to neighboring Sedgwick County’s 501,076 residents — according to 2011 Census Bureau estimates. Seacat, who will not seek a change of venue, asked to be tried in his hometown.
Authorities found Vashti Seacat’s body among the charred remains of the Seacats’ Kingman home on April 30, 2011. Seacat, 36, also faces aggravated arson and two counts of child endangerment for allegedly setting fire to the house while the couple’s sons — 2 and 4 — slept down the hall.
Seacat was an instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center at the time of his wife’s death. He also is a former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy.
The evidence considered at hearings like that held Wednesday usually consists of prior criminal convictions or other prior bad acts, Office of Judicial Administration spokesman Ron Keefover has said. According to a court filing, Seacat’s hearing would “screen out unreliable or illegally obtained evidence and insure that this evidence does not become known to the jury.” Solomon was set to rule on 14 pieces of evidence, he said before the hearing.
Attorney Lyndon Vix, who represented the media, told the court the case is of public interest and that information should be reported.
“It is this type of case that people look at and say, ‘Is justice being done?’ ” he said. “And it’s very hard to answer that ‘is justice is being done’ behind closed doors.”
In a rebuttal, one of Seacat’s attorneys, Val Wachtel, argued the evidence considered Wednesday should not be publicized to preserve his client’s rights.
“He has the right to a fair trial by an unbiased jury. And I argue that the more information that gets out into the community, the more biased the jury will be,” Wachtel said.
The prosecution took no position on the motion.
Wednesday’s hearing reconvened after the media and public left the courtroom. The hearing wrapped up about two hours later.
Citing the judge’s decision to seal the hearing, state assistant attorney general Amy Hanley declined to offer details on the day’s proceedings, including how many of the 14 pieces of evidence were deemed admissible during Seacat’s trial. Hanley is representing the state with Kingman County attorney Matthew Ricke and special assistant attorney general Kevin O’Connor, who recently lost a bid for district attorney.
Wachtel did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. Attorney Roger Falk is part of the defense team.
Seacat, who wore a suit to court Wednesday, listened as attorneys argued the motion. Behind him, two people sat in a row marked “Seacat family.”
A row across the courtroom — reserved for Vashti’s family — was empty. In an afternoon phone interview, Rich Forrest said his family was absent because they thought none of the day’s proceedings were open to the public.
Forrest, Vashti’s older brother, said her relatives wish “we knew more about the evidence in the case.”
“It’s frustrating because anything that we can hear helps us feel like we can get some kind of closures but we understand that procedures are being followed. It just doesn’t lessen the frustration,” he said.
Forrest said Vashti’s family plans to attend future proceedings, including a final pretrial motions hearing set for Nov. 19.
Seacat’s trial is set to begin Dec. 3. He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years, if convicted of first-degree murder. He is being held in Kingman County Jail on $1 million bond.