Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Judge orders court closed


A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ordered that his courtroom be closed to the public during a preliminary hearing for six people who are charged with murder in connection to the stabbing death of a 16-year-old boy, according to the prosecutor assigned to the case.
The preliminary hearing began on Aug. 19 in the Department 14 courtroom of Judge Clifford Anderson.

Details about why the courtroom was closed were scant yesterday, but Deputy District Attorney Hans Almgren, the prosecutor, said it is not out of the question for a judge to do so during a high-profile case.
“In certain circumstances, to ensure the defendant gets a fair trial, the court can close the preliminary hearing,” Almgren said.
Trial Courts Executive Officer Gary Blair said Anderson’s ruling is legal, and noted that it’s possible to close a courtroom during a preliminary hearing, but not during a trial. He also said if the District Attorney’s Office wanted to keep the proceeding completely private, it could have convened a grand jury, which would have not only precluded the presence of the public, but defense counsel as well.
“I have seen it done before, but it’s rare,” Blair said of the closed courtroom. “Usually it’s because they’re worried about pre trial prejudices or publicity or there’s some safety issue involved.”
But according to Michael Cooney, a local attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, it’s been at least 20 years since a local courtroom was closed to the public.
He said substantial case law indicates the closure of a courtroom should rarely, if ever occur, and concerns about safety and pre-trial prejudice can be handled without infringing on the rights of the public.
“What’s being ignored is the public’s right to be present and learn about it and that’s astonishing,” Cooney said. “[They’re] turning the constitution back on its head again and it’s pretty frightening.”
Because Anderson made his ruling outside the presence of the public, Almgren said he couldn’t comment on the specifics.
The six co-defendants have been charged with murder in connection with the stabbing death of Lorenzo Valentin Carachure, 16, who stabbed to death near his home on San Pascual Street in July 2007.
Two of those facing charges, Brian Steven Medinilla and Ruben Nicholas Mize, are 16 years old and are being tried as adults. Emilio Mora and Carlos Diaz, both 19, have also been charged with murder. The identity of the other two defendants was not known as of press time.
When Santa Barbara Police made an initial wave of arrests in May 2008, seven people were taken into custody, including the four defendants. One of those arrested was charged with accessory to murder after the fact, while the other two, both juveniles, were not immediately charged with a crime.
It’s not clear whether these two were eventually charged and are now defendants, or if two other people were arrested.
Though it remains a mystery as to what information Anderson used to conclude the courtroom should be closed, witness intimidation has been an issue in another local high-profile murder case.
Just a week before the preliminary hearing began in Anderson’s courtroom, a 19-year-old witness scheduled to testify in the murder trial of Ricardo “Ricky” Juarez, also being held in Superior Court, was stabbed several times at an upper State Street hotel.
Police records showed the victim of that assault, who eventually testified in the Juarez trial, was a suspected member of the Eastside “Traviesos” gang, which officials say Juarez belongs to as well. One of the people arrested in connection with the stabbing was a member of that same gang, according to police documents.
That person, identified by police as 18-year-old Pablo Enrique Lopez, was charged with a number of crimes, including attempted murder and intimidating a witness.

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