One count of felony perjury was filed Thursday against Enid attorney Eric Edwards in Major County, but the public may never see any record of the matter.
Within hours of the felony charge being filed, District Judge Ray Dean Linder sealed all records in the case, effectively removing the proceedings from public view.
The felony perjury charge was posted to On Demand Court Records, a state court records database, Thursday afternoon.
A subsequent request from the Enid News & Eagle to the office of Major County Court Clerk Shauna Hoffman for an affidavit in the case was denied on the grounds the case records had been sealed.
Hoffman said the record of the felony charge “is being removed from ODCR tonight, and won’t be on there after that.” She declined to comment further on the matter.
In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Linder confirmed he sealed the records of the felony perjury charge filed against Edwards.
“That is correct and it will remain sealed until I say it shouldn’t be sealed,” Linder said.
Asked why the case was sealed, Linder replied, “Because in my professional opinion it deserved to be sealed.”
Asked what entitled this particular case to be sealed, Linder replied, “Because I am the district judge, and I believe all persons are presumed innocent until their guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt by a qualified jury or judicial process.”
Asked what made him seal this particular case, as opposed to other cases involving adults facing felony charges, Linder replied “my personal opinion, my professional opinion, my 50 years of experience as an attorney.”
Linder did not answer a question of if Edwards’ status as an attorney played into the decision to seal the case.
“The matter is sealed so we’re not going to talk about it — that’s the reason you seal the record, is to prevent the information from being dispersed,” he said.
Linder said the ODCR record of the case “won’t be on there for long.”
That was brought to fruition shortly before 5 p.m. Thursday when the record ceased to be accessible on ODCR, replaced by a message stating “This record does not exist in our system. Please visit the court’s office if you need access to this case you requested.”
Fresh searches for the case on ODCR yielded no results.
Major County Assistant District Attorney Danny Lohmann said the records in the case against Edwards had been sealed by Linder. He declined to comment further. Major County Sheriff Steve Randolph said Edwards had not been arrested Thursday, and he had not received an arrest warrant for Edwards. Randolph said the records were sealed and also declined to comment further.
Joey Senat, a professor of media law at Oklahoma State University and an open government advocate, classified Linder’s reasoning for sealing the case as “absolutely outrageous and arrogant.”
“Voters in that county ought to keep that in mind next time he’s up for election because he’s given preferential treatment that is certainly not provided to other people,” Senat said.
“That’s absolutely outrageous and arrogant. That’s just unacceptable. The only judges that get to say, ‘Because we said so’ are U.S. Supreme Court judges, not Major County district judges.
“How many other cases has that judge sealed to keep from the public for the same reason: He said so?” Senat said. “There is no way (to tell how many cases were sealed). It becomes a secret docket. It becomes a secret court. That kind of statement from him is something you would hear in a third world country in a petty dictatorship, some sort of banana republic.”
Senat also raised questions about the statutory validity of Linder’s basis for sealing the case.
“He can’t just do it on a whim, of his own volition. He can’t do it on a whim, not legally,” Senat said. “The courts belong to the people, not the judges. The judge has to have a compelling reason for sealing a court record. Saving him (Edwards) some embarrassment would not be a justifiable reason for closing a court record. Anyone who’s in trouble with the law could make that claim. A lot of civil plaintiffs and defendants could make that claim.”
Oklahoma Statutes provide guidelines for sealing court records in Title 22 — Criminal Procedure.
According to Title 22 Section 19, “Any person qualified under Section 18 of this title may petition the district court ... for the sealing of all or any part of the record, except basic identification information.”
Section 18 defines those qualified as people who have been: acquitted; have had their conviction reversed; have been proven innocent; have received a full pardon; had no charges filed after arrest; had the statute of limitations expire without charges being filed; if the person was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense; the offense was a misdemeanor and 10 years have passed; the offense was a nonviolent felony and 10 years have passed; the person was arrested for a crime committed by someone else in their name.
According to Section 19, “Upon filing of a petition or entering of a court order (for sealing or unsealing of records) the court shall set a date for a hearing and shall provide 30 days of notice of the hearing ...”
Oklahoma Statutes provide that felony perjury is punishable by imprisonment when:
• Committed on the trial of an indictment for felony. The term is two to 20 years.
• Committed on any other trial proceeding in a court of justice. The term is one to 10 years.
• In all other cases, the prison term is not more than five years.
According to the Oklahoma Bar Association website, the association has the authority to investigate complaints against lawyers, either after receiving a complaint or because of evidence of misconduct.
Investigations and those records are not available to the public unless the association’s professional responsibility tribunal makes a finding to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. Lawyers found guilty of serious misconduct may be suspended or disbarred from practicing law. Other minor misconduct may result in censure or reprimand.
A call to Edwards’ law office for comment on the felony perjury charge did not yield a response Thursday.