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Public interest outweighs confidentiality in Ky. juvenile sexual assault case

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A Kentucky judge earlier this week granted a local newspaper’s request to unseal records in a juvenile sexual abuse case…

A Kentucky judge earlier this week granted a local newspaper’s request to unseal records in a juvenile sexual abuse case that sparked widespread support for the victim after she publicly identified her alleged attackers.

Jefferson District Court Chief Judge Angela McCormick Bisig also ruled that all proceedings held in the case will be open to the public and allowed the news media to photograph in the courtroom.

In allowing The (Louisville) Courier-Journal to intervene in the case for access to court hearings and records, Bisig made clear that a confidentiality agreement between the parties applied only to information contained in and obtained from official records and proceedings and did not extend to Savannah Dietrich’s own statements about her personal experiences.

Because the agreement was sealed under state law, that question of constitutional significance remained unanswered until Bisig issued a written opinion and order on Tuesday.

A judge previously presiding over the case “ruled that there was no ‘gag order’ in place and that her admonishment had been to comply with the law of confidentiality required by Kentucky Statutes,” Bisig said.

Dietrich’s case garnered national attention last month, after the attorneys for two boys who pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and voyeurism filed motions to charge Dietrich, 17, with contempt of court after she named the juveniles on Twitter. Dietrich has said that her frustration by the plea deal motivated her decision to speak openly about the case.

At an August 2011 party at Dietrich’s home, the boys and Dietrich drank alcohol, the latter of whom passed out, according to Bisig’s order. The boys then penetrated Dietrich’s vagina with their fingers and took pictures with their cell phones, it stated. The boys then showed the images to other people, according to the unsealed records reported yesterday by The Courier-Journal.

An online petition posted on Change.org that called for no charges to be brought against Dietrich “for naming her rapists” received more than 10,000 signatures. Following such widespread media attention, the boys’ attorneys withdrew the contempt request, although one of the lawyers said that decision was not made because of the negative attention the action received.

As was Dietrich’s case, juvenile court proceedings and records are presumptively closed to the public in Kentucky. But exceptions are occasionally made when a court finds it is in the public interest to grant access to a third party or the media.

That is, a judge must allow access to juvenile court proceedings and records “for good cause,” a determination that involves a judicial balancing of the parties’ interest in confidentiality with the public and the news media’s interest in disclosure.

In this case, the standard for openness was met, Bisig ruled. After considering interests such as public confidence in the justice system, the various parties’ desire for openness or closure and the issue of confidentiality in an increasingly digital society, “there is good cause contemplated under Kentucky law to review the record in this case,” she said.

“The very idea that a young victim of sexual assault would find the courage to tell her story and come to court, only to have no one listen to her, explain to her what is happening, and then to have the parties reach some type of deal without her input is abhorrent,” the judge said. “This type of allegation against the criminal justice system is serious and is impossible to address without reviewing what happened in this case.”

Courier-Journal lawyer Jon L. Fleischaker said the judge's order was significant in that it noted the “serious questions about the actions of the county attorney’s office and whether any favoritism was exercised” — allegations that demand public oversight and accountability made possible only through transparency.

“When you’re talking about whether the public really has an interest in what’s going on, you have to remember that the public elects these people, and they have a hell of an interest in how these public officials are behaving,” he said in an interview.

The judge will decide whether to accept or reject the juveniles' plea agreement on Sept. 14, according to The Courier-Journal's report.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Secret Justice: Access to Juvenile Justice: Kentucky