Judge Allows Media in Smart Hearing

Judge Allows Media in Smart Hearing

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A judge will allow the media to attend proceedings later this month that will ultimately decide if the competency hearings for the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart will be closed.

Third District Judge Judith Atherton issued the ruling Thursday granting the media access to the hearing, reversing a previous ruling that she says she made in haste.

"The media are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public, and without access they can not," media attorney Jeff Hunt said after the hearing.

Defense attorneys for Brian David Mitchell had argued that the media had no right to intervene in the case because it was between prosecutors and the defense, and that the media's request was creating extra work for the court.

"Intervention in a criminal case is completely inappropriate," defense attorney Patrick Corum argued in court Thursday.

The media lawyers argued that legal precedence mandates their access to the arguments, and Atherton agreed.

The defense's motion to close Mitchell's competency hearing is scheduled to be heard April 20. Three days have been set aside for the actual competency hearing, which is to start May 4.

Mitchell's defense moved to close the competency hearings because they feared open proceedings would expose prejudicial information about their client, hurting his chances if he were found mentally competent to stand trial.

When media organizations protested, the defense then argued that a hearing on whether the media should have access to competency proceedings should also be closed to the media -- in effect asking lawyers to respond to arguments they have not heard. Atherton denied that Thursday.

Mitchell, 50, and his wife and co-defendant, Wanda Eileen Barzee, 58, are charged with kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated burglary and attempted aggravated kidnapping.

Barzee, who has been found incompetent to stand trial, has been transferred to the Utah State Hospital for treatment to restore her to competency.

Media organizations contesting the case are the Deseret Morning News, The Salt Lake Tribune, television station KSL, the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and The Associated Press.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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