Public won when appeals court ruled juvenile murder hearings should have been open

By Jim Witt
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Aug. 19, 2014

The public won a significant “right-to-know” decision last week when Texas’ 2nd District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth unanimously ruled that State District Judge Jean Boyd abused her discretion by closing her juvenile courtroom twice early this year during a murder case.

Because the media is part of “the public,” we don’t enjoy any special rights or privileges unavailable to ordinary citizens, so we were banished, too. As your de facto eyes and ears, we were severely hampered in our reporting on the proceedings, although our reporters did manage to piece together what happened by talking to participants in the hearings.

The appellate court ordered Boyd to vacate the closure orders and take immediate steps to make transcripts of the two hearings available. We hope to see those records soon.

The reason this juvenile case was so special was that it followed shortly after another case involving Boyd that drew international attention.

Late last year, 17-year-old Ethan Couch of Burleson was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and therapy for driving drunk after causing a wreck that killed four people. State prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Although Boyd didn’t state a reason for the sentence she levied, many people were appalled after hearing that a psychologist called by the defense argued that Couch should not be sent to prison because he suffered from “affluenza,” a pop-culture term sometimes used to describe the entitlement problems that affect the children of privilege.

Because Boyd decided to close her courtroom in a subsequent juvenile murder case so soon after the loudly debated Couch sentence, we feared the judge might make closing her courtroom standard operating procedure.

At the time. the judge said she closed the first hearing in the case involving 17-year-old, publicly identified as “RJD,” to avoid tainting the jury pool, and closed the second hearing after both the defense and state prosecutors agreed to omit from the stipulation of evidence certain facts regarding the sexual relationship between the teen and his victim. The judge said she feared publication of those facts if the hearing was open.

But in Texas, the law states that juvenile proceedings for defendants 14 and older should be open “unless the court, for good cause shown, determines that the public should be excluded.”

Boyd closed the two hearings without giving the media or other members of the public a chance to protest and offer contrary evidence. Neither the state nor the defense had requested the hearings be closed, and the district attorney’s office argued the hearings should be open.

The appeals court opinion said that while “the fear of tainting the jury pool is indeed a concern in every pretrial hearing in every high-profile case, criminal or civil, including juvenile cases … exposure to news accounts of a crime does not alone, however, presumptively deprive the defendant of due process.”

Regarding the second closed hearing, the justices agreed that the different goals of the juvenile justice system “cause the types of privacy concerns at issue here to be more compelling … (and) could in some instances justify closing a juvenile hearing.’’

But because Boyd did not cite any stipulated facts, files, self-authenticating documents or some other evidence to show good cause why the hearing should be closed, they ruled again that she abused her discretion.

This case was watched intently by several interested parties throughout the state. A group of juvenile justice law professors offered a brief in support of Boyd, as did the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

While the media members who partnered to ask the appeals court to review Boyd’s closure orders — the Star-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News and TV stations KTVT, KXAS, KDFW and WFAA — were gratified by the ruling, the appeals court declined to establish what type of evidence might in the future meet the test of “good cause shown.”

But if it does happen again, you can be sure that we’ll be there defending your right to know.

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram.