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Pre-trial hearing unconstitutionally closed to the public

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ILLINOIS   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Nov. 2, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   ILLINOIS   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Nov. 2, 2005


Pre-trial hearing unconstitutionally closed to the public

  • A closed pre-trial hearing about evidence in a murder case violated standards of openness set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court, a state appellate court ruled.

Nov. 2, 2005  ·   A May 9 court hearing to determine the admissibility of certain evidence into the murder trial of a man accused of the September 2003 drowning of his then-girlfriend’s three children should have been open to the public under U.S. Supreme Court precedent mandating open trials, an Illinois appellate court ruled Oct. 24.

A three-judge panel of the 4th District Appellate Court in Springfield, Ill., agreed with three news organizations that the evidence hearing should have been open because ” (1) it involves a question of great public interest and (2) the restrictions the trial court imposed are capable of repetition and evading review,” according to the court’s opinion.

The Associated Press, the Decatur Herald & Review and The (Bloomington) Pantagraph appealed DeWitt County Circuit Court Judge Stephen H. Peters’ decision to close the May 9 hearing, restricting the media and the public’s access to statements made about the defendant by two of the children before they died and to testimony about character attributes meant to be kept out of the trial.

The lower court failed to demonstrate that an open hearing would prevent a fair trial for the defendant and that no alternatives existed that could protect the defendant’s fair-trial rights, according to the three-judge panel’s decision.

In response to the lower court’s decision that assumed the press would misuse information from the hearing and taint jury selection, appellate Judge Robert J. Steigmann wrote: “A concern that the press will misuse inadmissible information is not sufficient to support a finding that a substantial probability exists that the defendant’s fair-trial rights will be impinged.”

The trial court also stated as a concern that “the media was likely to constantly repeat the inadmissible evidence,” to which Steigmann responded, “a speculative concern for how the media will use information should not justify the closure of criminal proceedings.”

Jeff Justice, attorney for defendant Maurice LaGrone Jr., told The Associated Press he will not appeal the court’s decision.

When Peters closed the hearing, he said he would release a transcript after a jury was selected for LaGrone’s trial, scheduled to begin in February, AP reported. All other hearings have remained open to the press and public.

“We fought this not for the news industry but for our readers, the public,” Linda Lindus, publisher of The Pantagraph, told AP. “We have to maintain openness.”

MM


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