Appeals court hears arguments on closure of juvenile hearings

06/25/2014 5:18 PM

06/25/2014 5:19 PM

Arguing that it was not only within the court’s power, but also its obligation, attorneys for the state and local media outlets asked the Court of Appeals Wednesday to help prevent the arbitrary closure of juvenile proceedings.

Wednesday’s hearing before Fort Worth’s Second District Court of Appeals stemmed from a petition filed by the Star-Telegram and other media outlets over the closure of two juvenile hearings in January by State District Judge Jean Boyd.

The petition argues that Boyd abused her discretion when she closed the proceedings, against the state’s objections and with no such request made by the defense, without conducting a hearing in open court to allow the media and public to be heard and determine if there was “good cause” to warrant such closures.

Under the Texas Family Code, juvenile proceedings are presumed open if the accused child is at least 14 years of age unless “good cause” is shown.

The first closed hearing involved an unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors to have a 16-year-old boy, identified in court records by the initials “R.J.D.,” certified as an adult in the fatal beating of a 17-year-old acquaintance, Nicholas Anderson, with a hammer. In the second hearing, the teen pleaded guilty to capital murder in the case and was sentenced to 26 years behind bars.

Wednesday’s hearing

Boyd, who is representing herself in the case because she said she did not have time to seek funding for an attorney from the Commissioner’s Court, did not appear at Wednesday’s hearing.

Tom Williams, the Star-Telegram’s attorney, asked the court to vacate Boyd’s closure orders, make transcriptions from the hearing available upon request, and “fashion a procedural mechanism” to be followed in future cases before such hearings are closed.

The petition was filed on behalf of the Star-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News, and KTVT, KXAS, KDFW and WFAA.

In arguing alongside the media, Charles Mallin, chief of the Tarrant County district attorney’s appellate division, echoed District Attorney Joe Shannon’s previous comment to the Star-Telegram that “the public has a right to know what goes on in our courts.”

Mallin pointed out that Boyd didn’t consider any less-restrictive alternatives to closing the hearings. He asked the Court of Appeals to define the Family’s Code’s “good cause” provision and craft a remedy to be followed before closing such hearings.

“The court has not only the power but has the obligation so this doesn’t happen in the future,” Mallin said.

Patricia Cummings, representing both “R.J.D.” and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, argued that juvenile cases need to be handled case-by-case and that she believes Boyd was within her statutory rights to close the hearings.

Cummings said Boyd has access to sensitive details about the case, including psychological assessments of the teen, that could interfere with or harm the juvenile system’s purpose of rehabilitating teens.

“I think she could clearly find good cause to close it. I think that’s exactly what she did in this case,” Cummings said.

The attorneys’ arguments were heard by Justices Bill Meier, Sue Walker and Lee Gabriel, who will issue their opinion at a later date.

Shannon, who is retiring, and incoming District Attorney Sharen Wilson were among spectators at Wednesday’s hearing.

Boyd’s written response

Boyd explained her reasons for closing the hearings in a previously filed written response to the writ of mandamus petition, a copy of which was obtained by the Star-Telegram on Wednesday.

In it, Boyd said her decision “occurred in the context of extremely unique circumstances” and that the closings were two of only three hearings closed in the last year.

“To put this figure into perspective, according to statistics maintained by the District Clerk’s office, there were 2,976 hearings conducted in the 323rd Family District Court in the first quarter of 2014,” Boyd’s response states. “Although the Court does not keep statistics on closure of hearings, it is the Court’s belief that in the last 10 years, fewer than 10 cases have been closed involving juveniles 14 years of age or older.”

Boyd wrote that she closed the Jan. 10 hearing out of concern that if she denied the adult certification, the pretrial publicity could make it hard to seat an impartial jury for the teen’s trial.

In her closing of the Jan. 22 hearing, she noted the large media presence and the media’s handling of another juvenile case, obviously referring to the case of Ethan Couch, a then-16-year-old teen sentenced to 10 years’ probation for driving drunk and causing a wreck that killed four people. The case drew heavy public criticism of Boyd.

“In that case, the juvenile’s name and photograph were published by the media, which was unprecedented in Tarrant County,” Boyd wrote. “Prior to this time, it was the policy of local media and a number of national media outlets not to publish juveniles’ names and photographs, respecting the confidentiality of juvenile proceedings. This extraordinary dissemination of a juvenile’s identifying information is not conducive to the rehabilitative process and is inconsistent with the state purposes of the Juvenile Justice Code.”

Referring to the “R.J.D.” case, Boyd wrote she was also concerned about the sexual nature of the crime, noting that evidence in the certification hearing had revealed the murder had taken place during a sexual encounter between the victim and 16-year-old suspect.

Though prosecutors had already agreed to remove mention of the sexual encounter from stipulated evidence to be read during the plea hearing, Boyd wrote there was no guarantee that the details would not be elicited through other witnesses, in the victim’s family impact statement or other evidence presented at the hearing.

Though neither side requested the closure, Boyd said the law does not preclude her from doing so on her own.

She said transcripts of the hearing should not be released because they are confidential by law. Williams argued that he did not believe transcripts of the hearings fell under confidentiality extended to other juvenile records.

It is not clear how long it will take the justices to make a decision on the petition.

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