A federal judge this week decided to close a competency hearing for one of Utah’s most notorious murderers, then decided to open the second day of hearings after reconsidering.
We’re pleased U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson decided to reconsider. His decision reinforces the notion that courtrooms should be open to public scrutiny unless a compelling reason exists to do otherwise. In this case, there was no such reason.
Relatives of the victims of Ron Lafferty say the courtroom is a more respectful place when they are present. Indeed, the victim’s family has an obvious interest in how justice is served in such a proceeding, and they provide a powerful visual reminder of the lives that were forever altered by this murder. It’s also disturbing to hear the victim’s sister, Sharon Weeks, say she received no notice of the two-day mental competency hearing for Lafferty, and that she was informed about it through a KSL-TV report.
Lafferty and his brother Dan were convicted of killing Brenda Wright in 1984 because of a revelation from God. Ron Lafferty’s 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 hearings are to consider evidence about Ron Lafferty’s competence. There was no reason to close the courtroom on Thursday for this, and we hope transcripts of that hearing will be made public soon.
The initial ruling to close the hearings seemed based on an annoyance with the news media more than anything else. The Deseret News and other media petitioned the court to open the hearing, but the Judge rejected the request on grounds that the media had four years to challenge the sealing of documents in the case “but has not done so until now.”
However, the judge admitted 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.
The public should be pleased that this misunderstanding now has been cleared up. For nearly two decades, public interest in the saga of Ron Lafferty and his brother has been keen. The latest round of pleadings began four years ago, and has largely proceeded in secret.
Lafferty’s lawyers argued that opening court documents to public inspection would compromise the attorney-client relationship and divulge private psychological information about the defendant. Judge Benson has also granted media lawyers a chance to argue for the unsealing of documents in the case.
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. We applaud Judge Benson for reversing his initial ruling and granting the public a window into this important case.