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Newspapers win access to hospitalization hearings

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Newspapers win access to hospitalization hearings 03/22/99 VERMONT--In early March, the state Supreme Court in Montpelier unanimously held that reporters…

Newspapers win access to hospitalization hearings

03/22/99

VERMONT–In early March, the state Supreme Court in Montpelier unanimously held that reporters for two newspapers should have been allowed to attend hearings to determine the fate of Frederick Koch, a mentally ill defendant.

The high court reversed the lower court’s decision to close two revocation of nonhospitalization hearings and the resulting orders. The high court concluded that the public had a right to know what occurred during hearings on whether Koch should be hospitalized. According to the court, the lower court erred in concluding that in one of the hospitalization hearings, the court’s exclusive concern was the welfare of the mentally ill defendant.

“The mental health statutes are equally concerned with the danger to the public posed by a person suffering from mental illness,” the court ruled.

In May 1997, three weeks after his release from a hospital where he was being held pending a hospitalization hearing, Koch struck and killed a pedestrian with his vehicle. The Commissioner of Mental Health subsequently requested that Koch be returned to the hospital. At the subsequent hearing, Koch asked the district court in Windham County to bar reporters from two newspapers, The Brattleboro Reformer and The Rutland Herald, from the hearing and from obtaining full access to documents in the case. The district court closed the hearing.

The parties later stipulated to enter a new order of nonhospitalization. The court then closed the hearing to approve the stipulation, and ordered that contents of the stipulation remain under seal. The newspapers appealed the closure orders, claiming it should have been allowed access to the hearings and resultant orders.

In its decision, the high court noted that the lower court has the discretion to partially redact court orders, including terms or conditions that disclose confidential, clinical information. The court cautioned, however, against a trial court redacting information necessary for the public to maintain its confidence in the legal system.

Because the court relied on statutory interpretations as the basis for its conclusion, the court did not reach the constitutional right-of-access arguments raised by the newspapers.

Koch had initially been hospitalized in 1997 after he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct for threatening people with his car. At that time, the district court ordered an evaluation of Koch to determine his competence to stand trial. After the competency hearing, the parties stipulated that Koch was competent. However, based on the examining psychiatrist’s report stating that Koch had been insane at the time of the events charged, the court ordered that Koch be confined pending a hospitalization hearing. In April 1997, the hospitalization hearing was conducted in open court. Koch prevailed and was released from the hospital.

Koch currently is serving a ten-year prison sentence for gross negligent operation of a motor vehicle in connection with the death of the pedestrian, according to the Associated Press. (Vermont v. Koch; Media Counsel: Robert Hemley and Dennis Pearson, Burlington)