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LOGAN — A judge has ordered hearings to remain open for two 16-year-olds accused of plotting to kill a 14-year-old girl, luring her away after school and shooting her in the head.
First District Juvenile Judge Angela Fonnesbeck on Tuesday denied motions to close a preliminary hearing and other proceedings for the teens, saying defense attorneys had not shown that any specific and definable harm would occur by keeping the hearings open, as presumed under Utah law.
Attorneys for the two boys had argued that media and "spectators" following the case for "nosy" reasons should not be allowed in the courtroom to prevent the public from gossiping about details in the case, protect the boys' school-age siblings, and avoid tainting any potential jury pool in a small community like Cache County.
"We haven't even had hearings yet, and look at the information that's been out there," defense attorney Shannon Demler argued. "Some of it true, some of it not."
Demler went on to suggest that media could still serve the public without attending hearings by simply reporting the progress of the case rather than providing the "gory details" presented in court.
The closure effort was opposed by a coalition of media — including the Deseret News, KSL-TV, KSL Newsradio, Herald Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press, KUTV 2, ABC 4 and FOX 13 — who argued that juvenile court proceedings are presumed open under Utah law.
Attorney Mike O'Brien, who represented the media, argued that unless it could be shown that the teens' case is somehow different from other cases in the juvenile system, an exception to the law shouldn't be made.
"The debate's been had, the Legislature has resolved it, and we haven't heard anything here that wasn't argued at the Legislature," O'Brien said.
The two 16-year-olds are accused of attempted aggravated murder, a first-degree felony; aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony; and four counts of obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony. The Cache County Attorney's Office says it will seek to have the boys certified to face the charges as adults.
KSL has chosen not to identify the two 16-year-olds at this time.
Deserae Turner, 14, was in a medically induced coma for several days following the shooting. After Tuesday's the hearing, her family released a statement saying the girl has been moved to a neuro trauma unit, where she faces another surgery and extensive rehabilitation.
"Through the blessings of our Father in heaven, Deserae is still with us and has made progress. We are so thankful for the hospital staff that has worked every minute of the last 19 days to keep Des alive and healing. Des is fighting so hard and we are grateful for the many small miracles along the way," the family said. "Our sweet girl has been through so much as she battled for her life, and this will be a battle she fights for a long time, if not for the rest of her life."
The family also expressed their appreciation for the outpouring of public support and asked for continued prayers on Deserae's behalf.
Police say that on Feb. 16 the two boys lured Deserae to join them after school under the guise of buying a knife, then shot her once in the back of the head at close range, according to police. Initially, the boys had plotted to kill Deserae with knives, according to charging documents.
Deserae was found hours later gravely wounded in a dry canal east of Sky View High School in Smithfield by two family friends searching for her.
One boy eventually told investigators he had taken a .22-caliber revolver allegedly used to shoot Deserae from under his brother's mattress, then replaced the spent shells before putting it back later, police say. The boy also told police they took Deserae's cellphone, backpack, iPod and cash because of "greed," the charges state, and that he had put the $55 stolen from Deserae under the mattress of his bed and destroyed or threw away the other items.
Police said the second boy saved a shell casing from the shooting as a "memento," which he displayed on his bedroom windowsill, according to charging documents.
Arguing to keep the hearings closed, David Perry, who represents the alleged gunman, read from a letter to the Herald Journal decrying rampant online speculation surrounding the shooting. He also echoed Demler's concerns about the potential for "retaliation" toward the teens' families if information from the case is made available to the public.
Demler disputed arguments from O'Brien that, regardless of whether the hearings were closed, comment in the "community grapevine" would continue surrounding the case, and correct information provided by reporters would help dispel rumors.
"This isn't a gossip session, it's a very serious, serious situation. It's affecting three lives," Demler said.
O'Brien cited a recent decision by 3rd District Juvenile Judge Kim Hornak, keeping hearings open and unsealing court documents in the cases of three teenagers accused in the death of West Valley police officer Cody Brotherson. Hornak found that defense attorneys in those cases had not shown "good cause" to close the hearings and did not illustrate any specific harm that would be done by keeping them open.
However, Demler called this case "the definition of good cause," asking that if this juvenile case doesn't merit closure, what would?
Cache County Attorney James Swink said prosecutors would follow the court's decision on whether the hearing should be closed, but he noted that the proceedings are presumed open under Utah law. Further, Swink said, the public has a genuine interest in the case and a right to know what's happening.
"We do value a free press in our society, we do value information being released," Swink said, assuring that the state will protect fair trial rights for the teens.