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Newspapers may be able to publish juvenile murder suspect's name

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Newspapers may be able to publish juvenile murder suspect’s name

  • An appellate court stayed its decision permitting publication to give defense counsel an opportunity to appeal to the state supreme court.

May 14, 2003 — Newspapers may publish the name of a 10-year-old boy accused of killing 3-year-old Amir Beeks, a New Jersey appellate court ruled May 7. However, the newspapers must postpone publication to provide the boy’s defense attorney an opportunity to appeal the decision to the state supreme court.

The boy, known as A.K., is accused of luring Amir out of a Woodbridge, N.J., library, sexually assaulting him and beating the toddler to death with a baseball bat.

A.K.’s attorney originally requested an order prohibiting publication of the child’s name after the Home News Tribune, in East Brunswick, and The Record, in Hackensack, published articles containing the boy’s name. On March 28, family court judge Roger W. Daley granted the request to gag the press, preventing any form of publication of the boy’s name or image. But the newspapers fought back.

“Most press outlets agree to withhold the name of a juvenile suspect, especially if he or she is tried in juvenile court. But this is our choice and our responsibility,” wrote Record Editor Frank Scandale in a May column explaining why the paper named the juvenile murder suspect.

“Our conclusion was that this crime crossed the threshold of protection we normally afford suspects of lesser crimes. The heinous nature of this murder demanded maximum disclosure to our readers,” he wrote.

While the Home News Tribune and the Record chose to publish the name of the child, editors at The (Newark) Star-Ledger did not deviate from the paper’s practice of refusing to publish the names of juvenile’s accused of crimes.

The appellate court commended the Star-Ledger for its restraint, but vacated the order that prohibited publication of the boy’s name.

“As a matter of constitutional law, the [family] court was wrong to issue the prior restraint order,” said Donald A. Robinson, an attorney for the Star-Ledger. Newspapers should have the discretion to publish the name, he said.

In addition to seeking publication of the boy’s name, the Home News Tribune and the Record joined with the Star-Ledger and The New York Times to gain access to the juvenile’s hearing. However, the court of appeals refused to open the proceedings to the public.

Under New Jersey law, juvenile courts are presumptively closed and may be opened only if the court finds that there is “a substantial likelihood that specific harm to the juvenile would not result.”

In closing the courtroom to the public, the family court judge relied on the sealed affidavit of a psychiatrist who found that the identification of the child by name in the press and publicity would cause specific harm to the child in his rehabilitation efforts, Robinson explained.

The psychiatrist concluded that the child would suffer specific harm only if the child was identified and the Star-Ledger does not identify juveniles, Robinson said.

However, the appellate court found that the family court judge “exercised his discretion within appropriate bounds.” As a result, the appellate court upheld the order closing the juvenile proceedings to the public.

The newspapers do not plan to appeal the closure order, Robinson said.

(State in re A.K.; Media counsel: Donald A. Robinson, Robinson & Livelli, Newark, N.J.) ST

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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