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High court orders juvenile murder case open

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MISSOURI   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 3, 2006 High court…

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MISSOURI   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 3, 2006

High court orders juvenile murder case open

  • The public cannot be shut out of trials of children alleged to have committed serious felonies, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Jan. 3, 2006  ·   A circuit court judge may not close all hearings in a case involving a child charged with a crime such as murder that is of great public interest and would be a severe felony in an adult court, the Supreme Court of Missouri ruled Dec. 20.

The court ruled that a Missouri law excluding the public from juvenile court proceedings does not apply in cases “where the child is accused of conduct which, if committed by an adult, would be considered a Class A or B felony.” The court rejected Judge John F. Garvey’s argument that the public is permitted to attend only a pre-trial certification hearing where it is determined whether the juvenile will be charged as an adult. The law “deals specifically with public access to the proceedings and contains no language limiting access to ‘the hearing’ or the ‘certification hearing,'” wrote the court.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KSDK-TV asked the high court to prevent Garvey from closing all proceedings in the case, citing the law mandating open proceedings where juveniles are charged with severe crimes.

“While juvenile proceedings have for some time been closed to the public and considered an exception to the rule of presumptive openness of all court proceedings, the legislature has now determined that the public policy of the State is better served by opening juvenile proceedings to public scrutiny where juveniles are accused of acts that would constitute serious felonies if committed by adults,” an attorney for the Post-Dispatch argued in a brief to the high court.

In separate concurring opinions, two judges urged that the opinion should not be read to abridge the juvenile defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

“I would hold that the respondent retains the discretion to close the proceedings based upon a finding either that such closure would protect the juvenile’s best interests or that public access would prejudice the juvenile’s right to a fair trial,” Judge Richard B. Teitelman wrote.

Judge Ronnie L. White wrote: “The trial court has an affirmative duty to close proceedings when justice so demands and must do so in conformity with the child welfare policy of this state when the best interests of the child so require.”

The case involves a 12-year-old accused of killing her 9-year-old sister in an argument over a hamburger, the Post-Dispatch reported. In an adult court, she would be charged with first-degree murder.

A lawyer for the girl filed a motion in March to bar the public from a status conference, according to the newspaper. Judge Garvey granted the motion, barring the public from all but the final hearing in the case. “Media in the courtroom will possibly have an effect on [the] mother’s ability to assist [the] daughter in her defense, and this is not in the best interest of the child,” Garvey said, according to a Post-Dispatch report.

Criminal defendants have the right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment, and courts may close proceedings to the public if they find that an open proceeding would hinder that right. Many state legislatures have passed laws granting greater privacy in juvenile court proceedings on the premise that children should not have their pasts haunt them during adulthood. The Missouri law cited in this case has an exception for acts that are considered the most serious in adult courts because of the greater public interest in such crimes.

(St. Louis Post-Dispatch, LLC v. Garvey; Media counsel: Joseph E. Martineau, Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, St. Louis, Mo.)SB

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