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Maryland judge denies effort to seal hearing for teen charged with attempted murder

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  1. Court Access
A media coalition represented by RCFP attorneys successfully challenged an effort to close the hearing.

A circuit court in Maryland this week denied an effort to prevent the press and public from observing a court hearing to determine whether a 15-year-old student charged as an adult with attempted murder should be tried in juvenile court.

The ruling — to the Reporters Committee’s knowledge, the first in the state to recognize a right of access to juvenile transfer hearings — comes in a case that sparked debate about Maryland’s juvenile justice system and that local news outlets described as “a symbol of rising juvenile crime in the D.C. area.”

Tuesday’s decision by Judge Michael Whalen of the Prince George’s County Circuit Court came after a news media coalition — represented by Reporters Committee attorneys — challenged a request to seal court proceedings involving Kaeden Holland, who was charged with attempted murder and other offenses after he allegedly forced his way onto a school bus and tried to shoot a middle school student in the head. Holland has also been charged with a related homicide in Washington, D.C.

“Excluding the public from these proceedings would do little or nothing to advance any particular public value and would seriously undermine the First Amendment interest in protecting constitutional transparency to discussions, actions, and decisions relating to governmental affairs and the administration of justice,” the judge wrote in his opinion.

As a result of the ruling, members of the press and public will be able to attend a hearing on Thursday afternoon at which the court will decide whether to send the case to juvenile court.

Holland’s attorney moved to seal the upcoming hearing back in October, citing confidentiality concerns. The news media coalition — including the Reporters Committee, the Associated Press, Gannett Co., Inc., Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, NBCUniversal Media LLC, Sinclair, Inc., The Washington Post, and TEGNA Inc. — intervened in the case to oppose the defendant’s motion, arguing that the First Amendment and the Maryland Declaration of Rights guarantee presumptive public access to criminal proceedings, including where juveniles are tried as adults.

“[D]rawing a veil of secrecy around the hearing would violate the press and public’s First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings, badly undermining the public’s ability to understand a case that has become ‘a symbol of rising juvenile crime in the D.C. area’ and sparked extensive debate on issues of core public concern,” Reporters Committee attorneys argued in a brief in support of the media coalition’s motion to intervene to oppose the sealing of the hearing.

Judge Whalen agreed.

“Public access to criminal proceedings, which this is, is an indispensable part of our justice system, and these matters have historically been open to the press and the public,” the judge wrote in his decision, which cited the news media coalition’s arguments. “Open justice provides the guarantee that these proceedings, including trial and pre-trial matters, sentencings, and like settings, are conducted fairly to all concerned.”

In a similar case, Reporters Committee attorneys previously helped the Hartford Courant successfully challenge Connecticut’s Juvenile Transfer Act, which shielded judicial records and proceedings from the public in juvenile felony cases transferred to criminal court. The newspaper’s challenge ultimately resulted in a February 2021 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, holding that the press and public have a qualified First Amendment right of access to criminal prosecutions of juveniles in regular criminal court.

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