A Secret Murder Trial? It Can Happen In Your Court


Does the public have a right to know when a defendant accused of a violent crime is going on trial? If you’re a crime reporter, you probably said yes. But if you cover a jurisdiction with hundreds of criminal prosecutions under way at any one time, you probably also know that another important question is: How is the public supposed to find out?

In Georgia, for example, there is a strong presumption in the law that the courts are open to the public. But there’s no requirement that anyone other than the lawyers, defendants, and witnesses in the case — and sometimes families of victims — be notified of a trial date. A reporter (like me) can keep up with court “calendars,” but those documents really are just lists of dozens or hundreds of cases that might come to trial soon. A few will be scheduled and many will show up again next month on another “calendar.”

Of course, reporters make friends with lawyers, judges, and others who are in the loop and might give a heads-up on a trial. But what if all of those people involved with a particular case decide they would prefer not to have any public notice of an upcoming trial?

It happened to me last week. I am following a notorious case in which a home invader killed a 7-year-old boy and critically wounded his sister in what authorities say was a hit on witnesses to an earlier attack against the same family. I recently found in the online court docket an order for an imprisoned witness to be brought into court. I asked the district attorney’s office, a defense lawyer, and the judge’s office why the witness was coming in. The defense lawyer said he didn’t know; the DA’s office wanted to talk about a different defendant who would go on trial this summer; the judge’s office said talk to the DA.

I showed up at the courtroom the day before the witness was to be there and found the lawyers, defendant, and judge preparing for jury selection. The judge called me back to his chambers and explained he had agreed to a joint prosecution-defense request to put the trial on an “unpublished calendar.” He said he was worried about more attacks on witnesses. He said state budget cuts have made it harder to protect witnesses. He said he believed in openness, but he said the Constitution calls for balancing needs such as witness security vs. public trials.

That’s a legal question I’ll leave for others. But as a beat reporter, I came away wishing for a more reliable system to track criminal cases. I cover police as well as courts, and I don’t have time to patrol my county’s 10 felony courtrooms every day. It probably was a fluke I discovered the trial. (By the way, the defendant pleaded guilty shortly after I spoke to the judge, so the trial was over before this story was posted online: http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/dekalb/stories/2009/02/23/secret_trial_home_invasion.html)

Most journalists I talk to about this issue are surprised courts don’t issue public notices of their scheduled proceedings, in the same way most local governing bodies do. But I can’t recall hearing of any proposal to require such notices.

I hope you’ll comment if you can share information about courts which provide detailed schedules or any efforts to require them. Also share your tips on how to track court cases in the absence of official notices.

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