Closed-door court proceedings are troubling
A key witness in a Nevada County murder trial this week began testimony that will continue into next week. The doors were closed. No one from the public was allowed to view his testimony or the way that this segment of the trial is conducted.
While there is no indication that any of the participants acted from anything but the best of motives, and while there is no indication that anything untoward accompanied this closed-door court session, it remains troubling.
Courts should remain open to public view unless there is strong – overwhelming, even – reasons to the contrary. We don’t believe the current case meets that standard.
The facts are these: Martin Daugherty is a key witness in the trial of Charles Smith, who stands accused of the Feb. 16 killing of Julie Biswell at Big Oak Valley. Because Daugherty is seriously ill, his testimony was taken early and preserved on videotape in case he is unable to testify at the trial. No trial date has been set.
The testimony was taken behind closed doors at the request of the defense attorney, who feared that potential jurors would be tainted if they knew what was said, and the request was granted by Judge M. Kathleen Butz.
Any public knowledge of a case, of course, potentially taints a pool of jurors. In the past, judges in Nevada County have said the knowledge of a case by potential jurors tends to dissipate over time. Jurors may read about a criminal case when it happens, but memories fade by the time a case comes to trial. That appears to be equally true here. Some time – no one knows how much – will elapse before the trial begins.
If we wish to prevent the possibility that jurors ever will have any knowledge of a case, then lawmakers should dictate that the criminal justice system is to be kept entirely secret until a jury reaches a decision. Few of us would welcome that.
Some always will seek to conduct judicial business behind closed doors. Their interests must be offset by a strong commitment from the judiciary and other public officials to keep the doors open.
A courts system open to public scrutiny is an integral piece of Americans’ freedom. While this week’s closure seems harmless enough, we should strongly question any decision that impinges on this most fundamental value.
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