A monument to government secrecy will reach another milestone Saturday, when the investigation of the violent deaths of New Jersey political insider John Sheridan and his wife, Joyce, will have lasted six months. And despite occasional interruptions, the official silence about the crime continues. Why? Let's consider the authorities' own explanations - if only to more fully appreciate their indefensibility.
In the rare instances in which officials have attempted to justify their stonewalling, they have dwelled on the complexity and difficulty of the investigation. The week the Sheridans were found unresponsive amid a deliberately set fire in their central New Jersey home, a Somerset County Prosecutor's Office spokesman explained his refusal to provide information by noting that the office was "engaged in a very complex investigation." The next month, Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano expanded on this point in a written statement, saying, "The complexities involved with this case warrant a thorough and exhaustive review. . . . The ultimate objective is to get it right. In many instances, the achievement of that goal takes time. . . . "
A former official who is not involved in the case offered a pithier version of this rationale in a comment to Newark's Star-Ledger last month. Christie Whitman, one of four governors Sheridan served, noted that the investigative process "takes a while. It's not NCIS. It's not television, where everything is neatly tied up in a bundle." The condescending implication is that anyone seeking information about a crime has been watching too much TV.
Such appeals to complexity are inevitably followed by the assertion that the public, being incapable of understanding anything more nuanced than a prime-time police procedural, cannot be trusted with any amount of information about the government's handling of the death of a longtime public servant. As the prosecutor's spokesman once put it, "We do not wish to compromise this investigation by providing [more] information to our media outlets. . . . "
This is a straw man - a false characterization of the argument for public information that is designed to be knocked down. In fact, no one has demanded that the case be solved in 50 minutes and explained by Mark Harmon. Rather, The Inquirer and others have asked only for basic information about a disturbing crime. What that has to do with the "complexities" of the investigation is anyone's guess.
Consider that authorities did not reveal that Joyce Sheridan was fatally stabbed for nearly five months. Given that the fact had been reported based on unofficial accounts months earlier, how did withholding it protect the investigation?
Or take the drug arrest of one of the Sheridans' sons on the day of their deaths. The Prosecutor's Office itself declared it irrelevant to the Sheridans' deaths, so hiding it for a month and a half, as the office did, could not have served any investigative purpose. Moreover, authorities are legally required to disclose such facts within 24 hours.