|NMU||NEW MEXICO||Secret Courts||Aug 10, 2001|
Arraignments held in private prison rather than county courthouse
- A state open government watchdog says the exclusive policy offends fundamental rights.
On Aug. 2, Zacharia and Aron Craig were each arraigned in connection with the death of a New Mexico state police officer the day before. Normally, arraignments are public proceedings open to the news media. But in this case, the public and press were excluded because the arraignment took place inside a private prison rather than a courthouse.
The Cibola County magistrates agreed to conduct initial appearances at the prison, known as the Cibola County Corrections Center, rather than at the courthouse in Grants. The Corrections Center, however, is a private prison, and its policies require all visitors, including journalists, to ask for access 24 hours before entering. In this case, members of the public or press could not obtain access because there was not 24 hours of notice before the hearing.
First Amendment advocates in New Mexico have objected to the policy. Bob Johnson, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, claimed that the policy is at odds with the principles of open courts. “It was a ridiculous flouting of the prisoners’ rights and the public’s rights. For a private prison to dictate what happens at a public proceeding makes no sense,” Johnson said in a written statement.
Marty Esquivel, a media law attorney, also questioned the appropriateness of the policy. “Regardless of where the courtroom activity takes place, there is traditionally a right of access to this type of criminal proceeding and it must be observed,” Esquivel said in an interview with the Associated Press.
© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press