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Do deceased have privacy rights? Court to decide in slain restauranteur's case

Do deceased have privacy rights? Court to decide in slain restauranteur's case

(David Newkirk)

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Whether a dead person has a right to privacy is at issue in the case of a prominent Salt Lake restaurateur who was allegedly murdered by his estranged husband.

John Williams filed for divorce from Craig Crawford about two weeks before Crawford allegedly set fire to their Capitol Hill home where firefighters found Williams dead in an upstairs bedroom on May 22.

In the days before his death, Williams petitioned in 3rd District Court for a temporary restraining order against Crawford, but Commissioner Michelle Blomquist denied the request. Crawford also sought a protective order against Williams that the commissioner denied.

Court documents in divorce cases are closed under a rule the Utah Judicial Council adopted in 2012 and the Utah Supreme Court then approved.

The Deseret News and KSL have asked the court to unseal the case file, arguing that the public's constitutional right of access to court records is not subservient to a judicial rule.

"This is not a usual divorce case because of the fact that one of the parties is dead," David Reymann, a lawyer for the news organizations told Blomquist in a hearing Tuesday.

Reymann also contends that legitimate public interest in the case outweighs the need for secrecy. He said the news outlets don't want the records for salacious purposes but to allow the public to assess the function and accountability of the court system.

Paul Edwards, Deseret News editor and publisher, echoed those statements:

"This effort is not about lurid curiosity, but rather about holding public agencies to account. A clear-eyed review of the events leading up to this tragic death, including the actions of our courts and law enforcement, will benefit our community by identifying and resolving any deficiencies," he said.

Matthew Anderson, an attorney for the Williams estate, said that "simple tabloid" interest isn't sufficient reason to disclose embarrassing information about a person. Release of the records, he said, would tarnish Williams' legacy in the community.

Williams, 71, was president of Gastronomy, which operates the popular Market Street Grill, Market Street Oyster Bar and the New Yorker restaurants. He restored and renovated old buildings into some of the city's hippest office space. He helped found the Downtown Alliance and championed the arts, Salt Lake City's Olympic bid and other community organizations.

Craig Crawford. Photo: Salt Lake County Jail
Craig Crawford. Photo: Salt Lake County Jail

Crawford, 47, is accused of intentionally setting a fire in the foyer on the second floor of the four-story home, 574 N. East Capitol St., in the early morning hours of May 22. Williams, unable to escape the burning house, died of smoke inhalation.

Crawford is being held in the Salt Lake County Jail on aggravated murder and aggravated arson charges, both first-degree felonies. Aggravated murder is a capital offense potentially punishable by death.

Blomquist said even though the divorce documents are private, court hearings are open and the court docket shows filings and rulings in the case.

Reymann didn't disagree, but said the reasons for the decisions are contained in the sealed records. The public and the media, he said, are more likely to assume the worst when they don't have access.

Blomquist did not rule on the request to open the records Tuesday, but allowed Crawford's lawyer, Jim Bradshaw, 10 days to file arguments against it. Bradshaw, who said he had not chosen to intervene in the case before Tuesday's hearing, told the commissioner in court that making the documents public jeopardizes Crawford's right to a fair trial.

According to search warrant affidavit, Williams asked a friend and longtime employee to help him change the electronic locks on his home about two weeks before he was killed to keep Crawford out of the house. Williams also installed a security camera system which could be accessed by both his cellphone and the cellphone of his IT manager.

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