MARION, Kansas (AP) — The prosecutor in Marion County, Kansas, said Wednesday that police must return all seized material to a weekly newspaper raided by officers in a case that has drawn national press freedom scrutiny.
Marion County attorney Joel Ensey said his review of police seizures from the Marion County records showed that “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient connection between this alleged crime and the sites searched and the seized items.”
“As a result, I have submitted a proposal to ask the court to release the seized evidence. I have asked local law enforcement to return the seized material to the property owners,” Ensey said in a press release.
Even without the computers, cell phones and other office equipment taken in a police raid, the new issue of the Record made it to newsstands on Wednesday after a frenzied battle by the newspaper’s small staff.
“CAPTURED…But Not Silenced,” read the headline on the front page in a 2-inch-tall font.
Friday police raids on the paper’s offices and the home of editor and publisher Eric Meyer put the paper and local police at the center of a national debate over press freedom, with watchdog groups condemning the police crackdown. The attention continued on Wednesday — with TV and print reporters joining the conversation in what is normally a quiet community of about 1,900 residents.
The raids — which the publisher said were conducted because the paper was investigating the police chief’s background — put Meyer and his staff in a difficult position. With their computers confiscated, they were forced to reconstruct stories, advertisements and other materials. Meyer also blamed the stress of the raid on his home for the Saturday death of his 98-year-old mother, Joan, co-owner of the paper.
While the newspaper staff worked on the new edition late Tuesday night, the office was so hectic that Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, was immediately answering phones and ordering meals for the staff.
Bradbury said the journalists and those involved in the paper’s business took turns using a few old computers that police didn’t confiscate to send stories to the printer, compile ads and check email. Since electronics were scarce, the staffers made do with what they had.
“Index cards were literally going back and forth,” says Bernie Rhodes, the paper’s lawyer, who was also at the office. “They had all the classified ads, all the legal notices they had to redo. They were all on the computers.”
At one point, an Arizona couple stopped by the front desk to purchase a subscription, just to show their support, Bradbury said. Many others from around the country have purchased subscriptions since the raids; An office manager told Bradbury she is struggling to keep up with demand.
The raids exposed a rift about local politics and how the Record covers Marion, which is about 150 miles southwest of Kansas City.
A court order signed by a magistrate about two hours before the raid said local police wanted to collect evidence of possible identity theft and other computer crimes stemming from a dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell.
Newell accused the newspaper of violating her privacy and illegally obtaining personal information about her while checking her driving record online. Meyer said the paper was investigating a tip — and ultimately decided not to run a story on Newell.
Still, Meyer said police seized a computer tower and cell phone belonging to a reporter that were not part of the effort to check the business owner’s background.
Rhodes said the newspaper was investigating the circumstances surrounding police chief Gideon Cody’s departure from his previous job as an officer in Kansas City, Missouri. Cody left the Kansas City chapter earlier this year and started at Marion in June. He has not responded to interview requests.
Asked if the paper’s investigation into Cody had anything to do with the decision to raid it, Rhodes replied, “I think it’s a remarkable coincidence if it didn’t.”
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri.
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