Judge rules case of Utah teen charged in church attack will be public

Judge rules case of Utah teen charged in church attack will be public

(Tanner Siegworth, KSL TV, File)

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FARMINGTON — A teenager accused of breaking into a locked church meetinghouse through a window and choking a 71-year-old woman while she played the organ faces three criminal counts related to the attack, according to juvenile court records released Friday.

Police drew a link to the 17-year-old boy from blood found on a windowsill and doorknob after they say he cut himself on his way in. A genealogy database led investigators to relatives and then to the teen, who lives within a few blocks of the Centerville church, police said.

Second District Juvenile Judge Robert Neill on Friday ordered the documents to be made public, denying a motion from the boy's attorney to seal court records and close hearings in the case to the public. Neill issued the ruling from the bench after attorneys for the Deseret News filed a motion to intervene and argued for their release.

The boy, whom KSL has chosen not to name at this time, is charged with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony; aggravated burglary, a first-degree felony; and criminal mischief, a class B misdemeanor. He is being held in a juvenile detention facility.

On Nov. 17, the woman was alone in a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 270 N. 300 East about 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, police said, where she heard loud pounding on a locked door. She was later choked to the point of unconsciousness "multiple times" after the boy broke into the meetinghouse, according to Centerville police.

The boy's attorney, Peter Goodall, unsuccessfully argued that the boy's personal, family and mental health history justified closing the case, and claimed allowing access to the hearings and records could lead to the teen's identity becoming known, including to witnesses in the case, damaging his defense.

"A blanket motion to close all proceedings is too broad," the judge countered, noting the Utah Legislature has allowed greater public access to juvenile courtrooms over the years with the presumption that they will be open when a defendant is older than 14 and is facing a felony.

The Deseret News attorneys argued that reporters in courtrooms help the public understand whether standards of fairness are being followed, and that transparency fosters confidence in the justice system.

"The interest weighs in favor of openness in the courtroom," attorney Jeremy Brodis said. KSL-TV, KSL Newsradio and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists joined in a motion fighting for the release of the records and to keep the hearings open to the public.

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Brodis noted that while the 17-year-old's personal and mental health history are important, they are also, unfortunately, not uncommon. He argued that while defense attorneys claimed in their motion that news articles surrounding the case had allegedly contained inaccurate information, closing the case and preventing further release of information would exacerbate the issue.

Goodall, however, argued the release of the documents could lead to unfair prejudice against his client.

"Sometimes, there’s a rush to judgment that if somebody did one thing, they did everything, but we don’t know how many people were there," Goodall said.

Police said the organist was attacked from behind, and did not know what the attacker looked like, aside from being dressed in a gray hoodie. But Goodall said Friday that's not what his client was wearing that night.

Brodis pointed out that the judge could keep hearings open but bar news outlets from publishing images of him in the courtroom, a common directive in juvenile cases.

Prosecutors largely stayed out of the debate, though Brandon Poll, deputy Davis County attorney, noted that issues of identification are present in virtually any case and generally are not an argument for closure.

The teen, who has no prior criminal history, was not present at Friday's hearing, where his parents appeared emotional, at times covering their faces with their hands. Their son was arrested in Kaysville last month after months of work by detectives, who said there is no known connection between the boy and the woman he is accused of attacking.

A therapist who evaluated the teen early Friday indicated that news coverage of the case has had an effect on the boy, "but my suspicions are any minor would have the same reaction to the amount of media attention," Neill said.

The judge will allow a preliminary hearing on Wednesday to remain open to the public, he said, but at a different court date that will discuss the teen's mental health, Neill signaled that portions of the hearing will remain private.

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