Our View

Closing court is wrong and pointless

By From page A12 | February 02, 2014

The issue: Open access is a fundamental American right

Understandably, defense lawyers seek every advantage they can in order to secure a not-guilty verdict. But in the case of Daniel Marsh, the teenager accused in the gruesome slayings of Oliver “Chip” Northup and his wife Claudia Maupin, the defense has overreached by seeking to deprive the public of access to court proceedings in order to defend the young man from revelations that are already public.

MARSH’S ATTORNEY, Rob Johnson, filed a motion to exclude the teenager’s alleged confession to police, and he wants the hearing on that motion closed. The defense asserts that the publicity surrounding the case compromises Marsh’s right to a fair trial. Not only does he want the suppression hearing closed, he is demanding that the transcript of the hearing be sealed and a gag order imposed on participants.

Federal and state courts have consistently ruled that the public’s right of access is an important part of American democracy, and guaranteed by the First Amendment. Judges have ruled over and over that any closure must be “essential to preserve higher values” (that is, the integrity of the verdict) and narrowly tailored to achieve that end.

As long as other remedies exist to offset any potentially prejudicial information — jury screening, admonitions, instructions and even change of venue — the public’s interest in open proceedings must take precedence.

IN THE CASE of suppression hearings, the public’s interest is especially important because the procedures often center around the conduct of police and prosecutors. If the defense is going to make and substantiate allegations of official misconduct by public servants, the citizens of Yolo County need to know about it.

In Marsh’s case, not only is the level of publicity nowhere near enough to compromise his right to a fair trial, the very remedy the defense seeks is impossible to grant, because the confession is already public. Judge Timothy Fall, the first of three judges to get this case, ruled against an almost-identical motion in the preliminary hearing phase, and the confession was entered into evidence. That particular cat is out of the bag.

NOW, THE DECISION comes to Judge David Reed. He has before him a straightforward set of circumstances backed by precedent going all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marsh’s right to a fair trial will not be compromised by an open hearing; in fact, it cannot be compromised.

This maneuver by the defense wastes the court’s time and it wastes the people’s time. It will be in everyone’s interest to move forward.

Our View

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