Sunday, March 4, 2012

Blocking access to a murder

The Youngstown Vindicator
March 4, 2012

The Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected an appeal by three newspapers — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and New Castle News — to open to the public the juvenile hearing for accused killer Jordan Brown. As a result, the public will never know “officially” how the matter is resolved.

In 2009, at age 11, Brown was accused of killing his father’s pregnant fianc e by shooting her in the back of the head as she lay in bed. The case generated international attention. Brown was charged as an adult with first-degree murder. The Vindicator reported, if convicted as an adult, Brown would have been the youngest person in the country to face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto originally agreed that Brown should be tried as an adult. He was overruled a year later by the Pennsylvania Superior Court which took issue with a psychologist’s assertion that Brown’s failure to admit guilt indicated he was not amenable to rehabilitation.

Juvenile court

Brown’s case returned to Lawrence County. Following a second hearing before Judge Motto the case was transferred to juvenile court. Subsequently, the court closed the case to the public, resulting in a second appeal to the Superior Court.

The public will never know the outcome of Brown’s case, absent an appeal by the respective news agencies, and here is why. Brown’s adjudication hearing will be closed, and there will be no possibility of media coverage from inside the courtroom. There is also no provision in the law that permits the disclosure of information about the case.

Pennsylvania law permits limited disclosure regarding juvenile cases, such as the name, age, address of the juvenile and the case’s adjudication (guilty or not guilty) and disposition (sentence).

However, limited disclosure is restricted to felony cases where the accused is 14 years of age or older; or for cases of murder, rape, robbery and some other offenses, and the accused in 12 or 13 years of age. Brown was 11 years-old when the alleged offense occurred. Therefore, the court may not disclose whether Brown was adjudicated delinquent, the specific court findings or the terms of his disposition.

Who else will have access to the proceedings and can they make public disclosures?

The Crime Victim’s Act makes it clear that the family of a murder victim can be present during a juvenile adjudication and disposition hearing. The statute defines family quite broadly. Family members also have a right to be heard for purposes of disposition.

The Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure are also instructive in terms of who can be present during a closed juvenile proceeding. Rule 132 provides that the victim, victim’s counsel and a victim’s advocate may accompany a victim to provide assistance. A murder victim’s family cannot be denied access to a juvenile proceeding.

Rule 131 provides that the court may permit, at the court’s discretion, the guardian of the accused juvenile to be present if it is in the “best interest of the juvenile.” Theoretically, the court can prevent the father of Jordan Brown from being present during the hearing.

Finally, Rule 137 prohibits court personnel from disclosing any information about the proceedings. The disclosure of information by court personnel is punishable by jail time and a fine. Attorneys for the parties are not considered court personnel and, therefore, are not restricted from commenting on a pending case.

Gag order

However, the court would have the authority to impose a gag order on the attorneys if public statements would interfere with the juvenile’s right to a fair hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that attorneys can be enjoined from disclosures to the media or the public if their comments would likely prejudice the integrity of the juvenile proceeding. Gag orders on lawyers have been generally upheld.

Gag orders on parties have been a mixed bag. Some courts have provided wide discretion to the courts to restrict comment by the parties, while others have sought to preserve the freedom of parties to talk about their cases. The family of a murder victim is not a party to a criminal trial. Can the court restrict such persons from public disclosure? If not, the victim’s family may provide the only glimpse into an otherwise closed proceeding.

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