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SALT LAKE CITY — Following intervention motions by a coalition of journalists, a judge ruled Thursday to unseal the criminal charges filed against three teenagers in connection with the death of West Valley police officer Cody Brotherson.
Court officials said Thursday that the charging documents won't be made available until Friday.
Third District Juvenile Judge Kim Hornak said defense attorneys from the three teens had not offered a sufficient or specific reason to keep the charges sealed. 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.
"If this court were to accept the juveniles' arguments, then all juvenile court hearings would be closed to the public and the media," Hornak wrote, noting that the attorneys were also asking to close all hearings in the case.
The judge also said that keeping the filings and the proceedings private without good cause would be contrary to state law.
In writing the law, the judge said, "the Utah Legislature likely considered such public policy arguments raised by the juveniles as to possible detrimental effects on employment and rehabilitation and enacted the current law with the intention that juvenile court hearings are presumed open to the public."
Brotherson was attempting to lay down spike strips Nov. 6 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. The three teenagers believed to have been inside the car were arrested at two nearby houses across the street from each other.
Charges against the three boys — ages 14, 15 and 15 — were originally filed under seal, leaving the public in the dark about what allegations they are facing in the police officer's death.
A coalition of media — including the Deseret News, KSL-TV, KSL Newsradio, ABC 4, KUTV, Fox 13, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — 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. The motion was argued at three separate hearings this week, one for each teen.
Defense attorneys representing the three boys argued this week that releasing details about the charges against them would undermine the juvenile court's ability for rehabilitation and could psychologically damage the boys.
Steve Miller, the last of the three attorneys to argue against the case being opened to the public, criticized reporters and accused the media of seeking "shock value" in headlines about the case.
"Rarely do I see a truly educational and informative approach (from reporters)," Miller said. "This is not the time for untrained and unrestrained and consequently insensitive media to make inroads into the juvenile system."
Attorney Mike O'Brien, who represented the media coalition, said that the public has been impacted by Brotherson's death, and without knowing what happens in the court proceedings, will not be able to heal.
O'Brien called the case a "classic example" of the kind of scenario legislators were considering — a need for public access to ensure transparency in cases of juveniles accused of serious crimes — when the decision was made to open criminal proceedings for young offenders.
Prosecutors have not specified whether they will seek to have the case transferred to district court, where the teens would face the charges as adults.
Court officials said early on that closure was done at the behest of prosecutors from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office. However, prosecutor Sandi Johnson said the motion to seal filings in the case and exclude the public from hearings was filed by a defense attorney who, at the time, represented all three juveniles.
Because the motion was filed before any changes were handed down and the teens weren't facing any felony allegations at the time, their records would have been closed under Utah law regardless, Johnson said, and the order was signed by Hornak with no objection from prosecutors.
Now, Johnson said, felony charges have been filed against the teens and prosecutors are not objecting to the media's efforts to unseal the charges and other records that would be public under Utah law, or reporters' presence in future hearings.