SALT LAKE CITY — Only days before Thanksgiving last year, at about 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, a 71-year-old woman was practicing the organ alone in a church building. That's when her attacker broke into the building and put his hands around her neck, choking her.
She survived the ordeal. DNA evidence at the scene led to the arrest of a male 17-year-old who is facing charges of aggravated assault, a second degree felony; aggravated burglary, a first-degree felony; and criminal mischief, a class B misdemeanor.
In early May of this year, a 16-year-old boy was babysitting an infant. The baby girl did not survive. Prosecutors say the teen repeatedly tossed the baby in the air and the child stopped breathing. The teenager faces a single count of child abuse homicide, a first-degree felony.
In each case, defense attorneys sought to seal court records and have the hearings closed to the public. And in each case, attorneys for the Deseret News, joined by KSL Broadcasting and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, argued successfully to keep the records unsealed and the hearings open to the public.
This effort is both time-consuming and expensive. So why do we make the effort?
At times media is accused of seeking court documents to dig for salacious details to simply sell newspapers or embarrass those they are writing about. That is not our purpose at all and we take no pleasure in reporting on such tragic events. We base our decisions on a set of principles and try to be consistent in adhering to those principles.
• The public's business should be conducted in public. Power can be corrupting. Many have heard the phrase, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's why our country maintains checks and balances of its legislative and judicial powers, to limit the ability of any person or institution from bringing unrighteous judgment on another. Media, also known as the fourth estate, provides a necessary check on courts, ensuring that the people can protect the rights of both the victims and the accused facing a judge and a jury of peers.
• Give voice to the voiceless. Who are the voiceless? Anyone who is disenfranchised by society, or too poor, or too wounded, or too sick, or too misunderstood to be heard. In the two court cases noted above, it is an elderly woman playing the organ, and a helpless baby and her family. But perhaps surprisingly to some, it is also the two teenagers who have been accused of violent crimes. Will their cases be treated fairly? Our interest in the court cases is about understanding what occurred, why it occurred, and allowing the public to measure the proceedings and the circumstances of the alleged crimes and any punishment that results.
As one online commenter noted in the following, after reading a story on the death of the five-month-old girl:
"There's so many questions? Was this a situation where the babysitter was so unskilled in infant safety that he didn't realize tossing the child was dangerous? Did he unintentionally drop the infant causing head injury? Could he not handle the stress of a crying child and then acted too aggressively? Did he want to hurt the child with no provocation? How and why are really important here. It might be time to make law requiring certification, that includes background checks and infant safety training before being legal to babysit, whether family or not, whether paid or not."
• Minimize harm. The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists notes: "Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect." It is why we typically do not identify juvenile offenders, treating them differently than adults. Exceptions are made for the severity of crimes, the interests of society, and if the courts determine the offenders should be treated tried as adults.
To this point the Deseret News has not identified the two juveniles involved in these ongoing cases.
For many years, all juvenile proceedings were closed to the public. In the early 1990s, the Utah Legislature changed the law to reverse that, saying that in cases of juvenile defendants 14 years or older who are facing felonies, hearings would be open. The change was made both because the Legislature believed the public had a legitimate interest in cases when juveniles faced serious charges, but also an interest in how those cases were being handled.
Attorneys can petition for a hearing to be closed "for good cause." But during the past few years defense attorneys have been making blanket requests to close hearings, counter to the intent of the Legislature and the spirit of checks and balances, prompting us to work to keep the courts open.
Our attorneys from Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, working with Deseret News editors Brian West and McKenzie Romero, have argued on our behalf, acknowledging there are privileged matters, such as mental health of defendants and family history, where the court may need to keep that information private.5 comments on this story
But that information can be handled "with a scalpel rather than a hammer," as our attorneys have said. A hearing may be briefly closed, with the press and members of the public excused from the courtroom while privileged matters are discussed, and then be allowed back in.
The Deseret News also seeks to be transparent and accountable for the reporting we do. It's one of the main reasons for this weekly Inside the Newsroom column, to shine a light on ourselves and help you understand why we do what we do, imperfect though that may be.