George Frey, Associated Press
A federal judge has decided to close a competency hearing in one of Utah’s most bizarre and long-running criminal cases in a ruling that fails to make clear why reasons to close his courtroom outweigh reasons to allow the press and public inside.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson in the case of death-row inmate Ron Lafferty sounds as though it is based more on an annoyance with the news media than upon matters of due process or the public’s interests. The Deseret News and other media have petitioned the court to open the hearing, but the Judge rejected the request on grounds that the media has had four years to challenge the sealing of documents in the case – which apparently underlies the decision to keep the hearing closed – “but has not done so until now.”
However, the judge acknowledged that because of what he called a “clerical error,” there was no notice the hearing was to be closed to the press and public until just days before it was to commence. Upon realizing the hearing was to be closed, media interests quickly petitioned for it to be open, but Judge Benson denied the request on grounds that it was “untimely.”
Being ill-timed may constitute an inconvenience for the court, but it’s hard to see how it constitutes a persuasive reason to keep what normally would be a public proceeding closed.
For nearly two decades, public interest in the saga of Ron Lafferty and his brother, Dan, has been keen. The two were convicted in the ritualistic murders of their sister-in-law and her 15-month old-daughter in 1984. Dan Lafferty was sentenced to life in prison while Ron was sentenced to death. His sentence was stayed as a result of a federal court appeals ruling that criticized the process used to determine whether he was mentally competent to stand trial.
The latest round of pleadings began four years ago and has largely proceeded in secret. Court filings relevant to Lafferty’s competency have been sealed at the request of his lawyers who argued that opening them to public inspection would compromise the attorney-client relationship and divulge private psychological information about the defendant. Judge Benson did grant media lawyers a chance to argue later for the unsealing of documents in the case, including a transcript of the upcoming hearing, but he has remained adamant the hearing itself is closed.
Lawyers for the media coalition argued that all previous hearings on Lafferty’s mental status have been open to the public, and that the current proceedings are “a matter of fundamental importance and legitimate public interest and scrutiny.”
It is a valid argument, based on the constitutional premise that court proceedings should be open unless there are compelling reasons – established in a fair process of adjudication – to keep them private. That the media asked too late is not a compelling reason in itself to shut the doors to the courtroom in a case in which the public has long demonstrated an acute and legitimate interest.
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