Appeals court rules juvenile hearings should not have been closed

08/12/2014 4:55 PM

08/13/2014 10:56 AM

State District Judge Jean Boyd abused her discretion when she barred the media and public from two juvenile court hearings without showing evidence of good cause, Fort Worth’s 2nd Court of Appeals unanimously agreed in an opinion released Tuesday.

Boyd was ordered to promptly vacate the two closure orders and take immediate steps to make transcripts of the Jan. 10 and Jan. 22 hearings available to the media group.

“I respect the decision of the court of appeals, and I will comply with their ruling,” Boyd told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday.

The Star-Telegram and other media groups joined together to fight what they deemed an arbitrary closure of juvenile proceedings after Boyd barred the media from the hearings despite the objections of the state, no such request from the defense, and without conducting a hearing in open court on the matter.

The legal dispute involved the capital murder case of a 16-year-old boy and followed the much publicized case of Ethan Couch, a teen whom Boyd had sentenced to probation for driving drunk and causing a fatal crash. Boyd was widely criticized for her decision.

“We’re gratified with the court’s opinion that the hearings in this case should have been open to the public,” Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt said Tuesday. “Because this came right after a high-profile case involving a teen driver who killed four people in a crash and was sentenced to probation, it’s obvious that the public is very interested in what’s happening in our juvenile court system, and it’s our job to tell them.

“Hopefully this ruling will make that easier to do in the future.”

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon also expressed pleasure with the appeals court ruling.

“I am pleased that the court of appeals ruled in favor of open courts. I strongly believe that the public is entitled to know what goes on in the courts, especially in the criminal justice cases,” Shannon said. “Open courts protect not only the accused, but also the public.”

Capital murder case

The case in question involved a 16-year-old boy, identified in court records by the initials “R.J.D.,” who fatally beat a 17-year-old acquaintance, Nicholas Anderson, with a hammer.

Anderson’s body was discovered May 15, 2013, at Glenwood Park in the 900 block of Riverside Drive hours after he had told his girlfriend he was going to meet a friend.

R.J.D. later confessed to homicide investigators that he had killed Anderson during a sexual encounter, stole from the dead teen, and enlisted the help of a 17-year-old friend, Esmeralda Gutierrez, to help him conceal the body, according to Gutierrez’s arrest warrant affidavit.

Gutierrez was indicted on a charge of tampering with evidence. In May, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years’ deferred adjudication probation, court records show.

The first closed hearing involved an unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors to have R.J.D. certified as an adult. In the second hearing, R.J.D. pleaded guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to 26 years behind bars.

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

In a June hearing before appeals judges Bill Meier, Sue Walker and Lee Gabriel, the Star-Telegram’s attorney, Tom Williams, asked the court to vacate Boyd’s closure orders and make transcripts available upon request.

Williams also asked the court to “fashion a procedural mechanism” to be followed in future cases before such hearings can be closed, a request echoed by Charles Mallin, chief of the Tarrant County district attorney’s appellate division.

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

‘Unique circumstances’

Patricia Cummings, representing both R.J.D. and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, argued that she believed the judge was within her statutory rights to close the hearings, pointing out that sensitive details about the case could have interfered with the juvenile system’s mission of rehabilitating teens.

On Tuesday, Cummings said she and her clients were pleased the court ruled “on very narrow grounds” and recognized that a juvenile court judge can close a hearing “when there is an explicit finding of good cause to support such a decision.”

“Nevertheless, we remain concerned about the impact the release of the transcripts could have on the young man adjudicated in this case,” Cummings said. “While RJD has been sentenced for committing a very serious crime and is being held accountable for his actions, it is important for everyone to remember that the juvenile justice system is intended to rehabilitate him and give him a chance at success in the future.”

Boyd did not appear before the court in June but stated in a written response to the writ of mandamus petition that she rarely closed hearings and that she did so “in the context of extremely unique circumstances.”

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

She closed the Jan. 22 hearing, she wrote, because of the sexual nature of the crime (though prosecutors had agreed to omit mention of such details during the hearing) and her concern over the media’s decision to publish the name and photograph of a juvenile in an unrelated, high-profile case. Although she did not name that case, it was clear Boyd was referring to Ethan Couch.

“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,” Boyd wrote.

Good cause not shown

But in its 26-page opinion, written by Walker, the appeals court held that the Family Code requires “some evidence in the record supportive of a good-cause finding that the public should be excluded.”

“In the absence of evidence in the record — stipulated facts, judicial notice taken of facts or of files, testimony, self-authenticating documents or some other evidence — as to why and how R.J.D.’s jury pool might be tainted by the media’s and the public’s presence at the January 10 hearing, good cause has not been ‘shown’ for Respondent’s January 10 courtroom closure order as required by the plain language of the statute,” Walker wrote.

Nor, the justices found, was evidence in the record to support a good-cause finding to close the Jan. 22 hearing.

The opinion states that the court of appeals cannot craft procedures to govern courtroom closure orders in the future.

“We lack jurisdiction to do so,” the opinion reads.

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