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Hawaii news organizations fight to unseal transcripts and keep courtroom open

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  1. Court Access
Two Hawaii new organizations are asking the state's Supreme Court to unseal transcript portions from a high-profile murder case and…

Two Hawaii new organizations are asking the state's Supreme Court to unseal transcript portions from a high-profile murder case and to prevent a judge there from closing her courtroom in the future.

Christopher Deedy, a special agent with the U.S. State Department, was on trial for allegedly shooting a man in 2011 in a Waikiki McDonalds. The trial ended in a mistrial on Aug. 26, 2013 after Judge Karen Ahn held five closed court proceedings, according to a petition that attorneys for The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now filed with the Supreme Court of Hawaii on Sept. 6.

The jury had been deliberating for five days when Judge Ahn held three closed proceedings with prosecutors and defense counsel. According to court documents, Ahn also held a bench conference out of public hearing and, then, cleared the courtroom to conduct further proceedings. When she reopened the court, she polled the jury and declared a mistrial.

The news outlets’ lawyers argued that U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires that criminal proceedings be open except in rare instances and “only for cause shown that outweighs the value of openness.” In addition, judges must make specific findings and give the press and public notice and an opportunity to be heard before closing a courtroom or sealing records.

"It was blatantly ignored. None of that was done,” said Jeff Portnoy, the attorney representing the media organizations in the case.

The petition to the court also requests that Ahn refrain from future courtroom closings without first providing notice, an opportunity to be heard and specific factual findings indicating the reason for preventing public access to presumptively open proceedings.

"The error is the complete lack of compliance with Supreme Court precedent," Portnoy said.

Attorneys expect to hear from the court in a few days. They could either deny the writ, order Ahn to file a response or issue a ruling based on the writ.