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In our opinion: Rights of the accused do not preclude public disclosure

The community is not well-served when prosecutors seek to shield the public from proceedings for reasons that seem more like an excuse to avoid media coverage than sincere interest in protecting the rights of the accused.
The community is not well-served when prosecutors seek to shield the public from proceedings for reasons that seem more like an excuse to avoid media coverage than sincere interest in protecting the rights of the accused.
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There are occasions in the criminal justice system when the duty of a judge to ensure a fair trial and protect the rights of people accused of a crime comes into conflict with the duty of the news media to represent the public and bear witness to important courtroom proceedings. We have seen these two vital constitutional imperatives clash in several recent high-profile criminal cases in Utah, and they have not been resolved in a way that is beneficial to the public interest. Nor, have they been handled in a way that Utah law presumes they should.

If these cases mark a trend, and if that trend should continue, the public, its proxy the press and the justice system will all suffer. Openness and transparency, long the default position when it comes to access to American courts, will be diminished. Public understanding of how the court system handles delicate cases will be lessened, and the courts themselves will stand to lose credibility by operating in a bubble of secrecy.

The cases in question include the killing of West Valley City Police Officer Cody Brotherson, fatally injured when struck by a car being chased by other officers. Three juveniles have been charged in the case, but we do not know what exact charges they are facing. We don’t know their names, their background, or any information about why they did what they are alleged to have done. One of the juveniles is 14 years old while the other two are 15 years old, and Utah law presumes cases in juvenile court involving defendants 14 and older should be open to the public, yet prosecutors asked the proceedings be closed, and the judge agreed.

Another judge has closed proceedings involving a 17-year-old boy accused of raping a 12-year-old girl who was his neighbor. In a third case, news organizations had to hire lawyers to argue in favor of public access to hearings involving another 14-year-old accused of shooting a 16-year-old boy in a fight over a girl on a high school campus.

There are good reasons why the courts should treat juveniles differently than adults. Protecting young offenders from the stigma of public disclosure is reasonable in the case of non-serious crimes, or if the defendants are very young. The laws have traditionally reflected the viewpoint that shielding a juvenile’s identity helps the process of rehabilitation. In the case of misdemeanor crimes, or even minor felonies, the rationale is appropriate. But there are cases in which public interest in the details is legitimate and compelling. Certainly, the death of a police officer during a chase that may have posed a public safety threat qualifies as a matter in which public interest should be accommodated. The argument that disclosing the alleged “how’s” and “why’s” of an incident would impair a suspect’s right to a fair trial is belied by the fact that dozens of felony cases go to trial every year in Salt Lake County in which the details of the crime are widely vetted before the public before they are presented to a jury.

What has happened in these recent cases signifies what seems to be an almost reflexive anti-press posture by local prosecutors who have taken advantage of the opportunities peculiar to juvenile court to keep press and public outside of the proceedings. Under our system of justice, prosecutors serve as lawyers for “the people.” The people’s interest is not served when prosecutors seek to shield the public from proceedings for reasons that seem more like an excuse to avoid media coverage than sincere interest in protecting the rights of the accused.