Judge refuses to unseal testimony against man charged with kidnapping girl
WEST JORDAN — A judge who admitted that he didn't follow the law when he closed a court hearing to the public ruled Friday that he will not release a transcript of the testimony against a man charged with multiple counts of raping and kidnapping a teenage girl.
Third District Judge Bruce Lubeck ruled Friday that the circumstances in the case of Angel Vizuet Garcia are unusual. And even though he admitted it was inappropriate to close the court proceeding and clear the courtroom of members of the public, Lubeck declined to release the transcript to correct the inappropriate closing. He ruled that the transcript should not be released in order to protect the interests of the teen whom Garcia is accused of kidnapping and sexually abusing.
First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt said the legal team working with the Deseret News is disappointed in the decision and evaluating options to appeal.
"The public and the press have a compelling interest in accessing pretrial criminal hearings and records to promote public accountability and confidence in the system and its results," Hunt said. "Most cases don't go to trial, so that's why we have a constitutional right of access to the pretrial proceedings."
Garcia was originally charged with kidnapping, obstructing justice and reckless endangerment in the January 2013 disappearance of a 13-year-old Herriman girl. For two days, more than 1,000 volunteers searched for the girl until she was located after she called her family from South Jordan.
She left her home to meet Garcia, who kept her from police as they searched his home, according to investigators.
On the day of the preliminary hearing, however, prosecutors filed 10 additional charges — all first-degree felonies — that included four counts of sodomy on a child, two counts of rape of a child and four counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Prosecutors allege the man had been sexually abusing the girl as far back as 2008.
But soon after the new information was revealed in the amended charges, the judge closed the hearing, preventing the public from hearing the girl's testimony about Garcia's alleged crimes. The judge used her testimony and other information to determine whether there was enough evidence to order Garcia to stand trial.
After the girl was done testifying, Lubeck decided he erred in closing the hearing. Still, he declined to let the media have a transcript of the portion that was missed.
Hunt said Friday that releasing the transcript from Garcia's pretrial hearing is the only viable substitute after the press and the public were barred from a proceeding they should have been allowed to attend.
The Deseret News challenged that decision and argued that much of the information from the case is already in the public domain. Lubeck conceded that while this is true, court documents do not outline the "conduct" and "actions" of the teen girl or her "feelings" during the many years she was abused. The charges only outline the defendant's actions.
"That is what sets this case apart from the others," Lubeck wrote in his decision. He expressed concern that some people might interpret the teenager's reaction to Garcia's alleged crimes as "inappropriate."
The judge concluded that while the transcript's release would not prevent Garcia from receiving a fair trial, the decisions the girl made could cause embarrassment and need to remain private.
"The court feels safe in finding and concluding ... that no therapist would come to court and testify it would be good for (the girl)" to have her conduct made public, he wrote.
The Deseret News and other media have not named the teenager since charges were filed that identified her as a victim of sex crimes.
Hunt said the judge's rationale for closing the hearing because some individuals might blame the victim in the case is "troubling."
"The fact that there are some people out there that may be misguided or might have a misguided understanding about the law or the proceedings, that's not a reason to close the courthouse doors to the public," Hunt said.
Lubeck wrote that the interests of the public "to this court remain a claim that is without sufficient substance to sustain the presumption of an open preliminary hearing." He also concluded that the Deseret News' argument that the transcript should be unsealed because the public needs to have access to court proceedings and the media acts as a watchdog to assure that the court's process is proper is "without sufficient merit."
Contributing: McKenzie Romero
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