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News media win right to attend some juvenile court proceedings

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    News Media Update         MISSOURI         Secret Courts         April 1, 2005    

News media win right to attend some juvenile court proceedings

  • A newspaper and a television station can cover “adjudicatory” but not other hearings in a juvenile sibling murder case, a state appellate court ruled.

April 1, 2005 — Some juvenile court proceedings in the trial of a 12-year-old girl accused of murdering her 9-year-old sister must be open to the public, a three-judge panel of the Missouri appeals court ruled Tuesday.

In handing a partial victory to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KSDK TV, the court ruled that only “adjudicatory” hearings, which the court did not define, shall be open. The “general public cannot be excluded from an adjudicatory hearing where a child is accused of conduct, which if committed by an adult, would be considered a class A or B felony,” wrote Judge Clifford H. Ahrens of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals. Such felonies are the most serious criminal offenses.

The public can be barred from other hearings in the case, such as status conferences, the court ruled.

The Post-Dispatch and KSDK intervened in the case after Family Circuit Court Judge John F. Garvey closed all proceedings March 3. A status hearing on the case scheduled for the next day was postponed until the appellate court ruled.

The court, citing a string of U.S. Supreme Court cases, noted that the high court “has determined that the press and the general public have a First Amendment right to access to criminal trials,” a right that “must be balanced with the defendant’s absolute . . . right to a fair trial.”

In the Missouri case, the request to close the proceedings was not made on fair trial grounds, but rather on the belief that media coverage would hamper the 12-year-old’s care and treatment. According to an Associated Press account, the murder occurred after the sisters allegedly fought over a hamburger.

The court also rejected a decision from Judge Garvey that the law governing juvenile hearings in which a child is accused of a crime equivalent to a class A or B felony carves an exemption for cases like this in which the mother of the girls is both helping in the 12-year-old’s defense and is the parent of the victim. The three-judge panel disagreed, writing “we do not interpret the statute to include such an exception.”

“While we sympathize with the mother’s situation, we cannot agree that this is sufficient to close the proceedings,” Ahrens wrote. “The court’s findings . . . are not sufficient to show that there is a substantial probability of prejudice to juvenile’s right to a fair trial.”

The media organizations had sought to open all proceedings in the case.

“We’re certainly happy that the Court of Appeals recognized that Missouri statute discussing that certain juvenile proceedings are open. We’re not happy that the judge applied it only to the adjudicatory hearing,” said Benjamin Lipman, an attorney for the Post-Dispatch. “We think all proceedings involving a juvenile accused of such a crime should be open.”

(Missouri ex rel., St. Louis Post-Dispatch v. Garvey; Media counsel: Benjamin Lipman, St. Louis, Mo.)KM

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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