Judge: No public notice for teenager's hearing

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The public is welcome at any hearing held to determine whether a Jackson youth accused of shooting another teenager should be tried as an adult, but no public notice will be provided of when such a hearing may be held, Associate Circuit Judge Peter Statler said Tuesday.

The Southeast Missourian, citing state law and a 2005 Missouri Supreme Court ruling, requested in writing that Statler open the case file, including the docket sheet that details when hearings are conducted, to the public. In an interview Tuesday, Statler said the law and court ruling don't require him to open the file, nor does the law require public notice of the portions of the case he said are open.

"You can have access to the hearing, but you don't have a right to notice," Statler said.

In a 2005 case involving a juvenile accused of murder, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KSDK-TV in St. Louis that the law allowing access to certain juvenile cases is not limited to any particular hearings.

In the Jackson shooting, a 16-year-old faces juvenile charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action for the July 10 wounding of Jeremy Voshage, 17, at the Shawnee Square Car Wash and Storage, 560 N. Shawnee Blvd. Voshage was struck three times by bullets from a. 22-caliber rifle in what Jackson police chief James Humphreys said appeared to be a love triangle dispute.

Under the Missouri law covered by the high court's ruling, the public can have access to any case in which a juvenile is charged with a crime that would be a class A or class B felony if the suspect were an adult.

First-degree assault is a charge that for adults is a class A or B felony, depending on the injuries caused, and carries a potential sentence of life in prison.

"In the court case in question, only the certification hearing at this point would be open unless the child in question requests a hearing to close it," Statler said.

'Do we post it on a tree?'

Statler also indicated he would not provide notice if such a request for a hearing was received. "We just can't bargain away the rights of this juvenile," Statler said. "That is what we have to do. The juvenile has a say in all this."

Providing notice would be problematic, Statler said. "Who do we give notice to? Do we post it on a tree? Do we give it to the newspaper?"

Generally, local courts post a notice outside the courtroom indicating the time and place of juvenile proceedings, because they are public record, said Gary Waint, head of the Office of State Courts Administrator, the office that oversees and supports state court operations. Although there has been much discussion of how juvenile courts, where most cases are closed, handle cases that are public, the issue of notice has not been addressed, Waint said.

The attorney in the St. Louis case, Joseph Martineau, said notice of a hearing wasn't an issue in the case heard by the high court because the judge in the case, John F. Garvey, provided notice to the media that the juvenile had requested a hearing to close the proceedings. In an earlier interview denying the request, Statler had cited another law requiring juvenile records to be closed. "There is without doubt an apparent inconsistency in the two statutes," Martineau said. "There is one that says you have a right to attend, and another that seems to suggest records are closed, and that could mean the docket sheets are closed."

Inconsistent rules

The inconsistency between the statutes was noticed early on after the law expanding public access to juvenile cases was passed in 1995, said Jean Maneke, an attorney who advises the Missouri Press Association on open government issues.

"This has always been the problem with the statute," Maneke said. "When you read this statute through, it talks about the hearings being open and doesn't talk about notice to the public. If you happen to be there and know there is a hearing, you can attend. If you don't know, how can you attend?"

Public access to juvenile courts has been subject of much discussion and instruction for juvenile officers, Waint said.

The tradition of protecting juveniles in closed courtrooms began to change as more youths were charged with serious, violent crimes in the 1990s, said Steve Gaw of the Missouri Public Service Commission. Gaw, a former Missouri House speaker, was a member of a 1990s task force on juvenile reform and co-sponsor of 1994 bill.

The task force was created to decide how to change the system in a way so as to deal with offenders who had committed crimes that were more typically associated with adults, he said. "It's a tough balance to do," Gaw said of weighing the rights of both the community and victims with the protection of the juvenile offender.

"The community had a right to know about violent offenders," Gaw said.

Providing notice of a pending case has never been a separate issue from providing access for the public, Gaw said.

Statler's decision is disappointing, said Joe Sullivan, editor of the Southeast Missourian. "While it is clear to us that the Missouri Supreme Court decision gives us this access, it is understood that it is applied on a case-by-case basis since state law requires juvenile officers and judges to use confidentiality."

Lawmakers should address the murky legal ground to give clear guidance to judges and the public, Sullivan said. "It makes it all the more important that the legislature address this and change the law so we have some clear guidance," he said.


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