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Judge weighs whether case involving officer's death should be public

Judge weighs whether case involving officer's death should be public

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A juvenile court judge will rule Thursday whether to unseal charging documents filed against three teenagers in the crash that killed West Valley police officer Cody Brotherson.

A coalition of media — including KSL-TV, KSL Newsradio, the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, ABC 4, KUTV, Fox 13 and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — have filed a motion to intervene in the case, asking for the charges to be released and opposing efforts by defense attorneys to bar reporters and the public from hearings for the teens.

While early information from court representatives indicated it was prosecutors from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office who requested the charges be filed under seal, it was unclear Tuesday who made the initial motions to close the case.

Prosecutors did not oppose the media's motion Tuesday, even though District Attorney Sim Gill earlier said the decision to seal the charges was appropriate under the law.

Brotherson was attempting to lay down spike strips to stop a reported stolen car his fellow officers were chasing when at least one officer saw that vehicle swerve toward Brotherson, striking him and likely killing him on impact. Three teenagers, ages 14, 15 and 15, believed to have been inside the car were arrested at two nearby houses across the street from each other.

Because 3rd District Juvenile Judge Kim Hornak agreed to seal the charges, the public does not know what those teens arrested in connection with the officer's death have been charged with.

Two of three separate hearings, one for each juvenile, were held Tuesday on the media's motion to unseal the charges as well as details of any prior dealings the teens may have had with the court. A third hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, and Hornak will announce her decision on the issue Thursday.

Under Utah law, felony criminal cases for juveniles 14 and older are presumed to be open to the public unless good cause can be shown otherwise. However, the law does not specify what constitutes good cause, a fact that Hornak called "frustrating."

Attorney Mike O'Brien, who is representing the coalition, argued Tuesday that defense attorneys have not outlined specific reasons why the case should be excluded from statutes that classify the case open and public.

"What makes this case the exception?" he asked.

Virtually all juvenile cases, he said, carry a possibility of embarrassment for the youth and his or her family if the allegations are made public. Additionally, personal and psychological information is expected to be discussed in all cases, and there is a potential for community anger over any crime.

"Those factors exists in every juvenile court case, and those factors were aired with the Legislature," O'Brien said.

Nevertheless, Utah law governing juvenile court access on criminal matters has moved "from no to maybe to yes, and that's where we're at today."

Should specific issues arise in the case that justify being made private, they should be addressed "with a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer," he said.

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Defense attorney Monica Maio argued that "breaching confidentiality" would undermine the rehabilitative efforts of the juvenile court, would follow the teens through their adult lives and could potentially cause psychological damage.

Maio argued that, if the media want to understand and educate the public about the juvenile court process, there are other ways to do it. She went on to insinuate that reporters following the case were simply seeking out salacious details in order to sell newspapers.

"The media is a business," Maio said. "They may have other reasons for seeking access."

Maio also argued it would be damaging to make details of the case public considering it involves the death of a police officer, which she called a "hot button issue" nationwide.

Though Maio said defense attorneys for the three teens aren't opposing the Utah statute that would classify the case as open to the public, Hornak said it seemed their argument was based on the concern that opening the case would reveal details about the juveniles and the allegations against them to the public.

"That argument could be made for every single juvenile," Hornak said. "Aren't you asking me to find the statute unconstitutional?"

Defense attorney David Brown asked that Hornak wait until later to issue a ruling, saying he hasn't received enough information about the allegations to adequately argue the issue.

Brown also opposed the public being allowed to attend future hearings.

"If they sit in on any of our hearings, they're going to be hearing anything and everything," Brown said.

Utah journalists also had to fight for juvenile court access last month in a case involving a 14-year-old boy charged with shooting a 16-year-old at a Sandy middle school during a fight over a girl. The same coalition of Utah media organizations fought that motion, leading the teen's attorneys to withdraw their request.

Efforts by KSL and Deseret News were unsuccessful, however, opposing closure of a five-day competency hearing for a now 17-year-old West Valley boy accused of luring 12-year-old Kailey Vijil from her home last year before raping and killing her.

Media and the public were allowed into a subsequent hearing where 3rd District Judge James Michie announced his decision that the teen is not currently competent to face the charges in court. The boy was 15 years old when he was charged with aggravated murder and rape of a child.

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