Sexual predator case opened to the public

Sunday, May 12, 2002

CASSVILLE, Mo. -- Saying that citizens have a legitimate interest in proceedings involving alleged sexual predators, a Barry County judge has ruled that a sexual predator case will be open to the public.

"Confidence in judicial proceedings and law enforcement is enhanced by open proceedings," said Probate Judge Michael D. Garrett in announcing his ruling Friday.

On Dec. 31, the judge had granted a motion by the attorney for Donald Ray Williams, seeking to have court records, hearings and the trial in Williams' case closed.

But on Friday, Williams granted a motion by The Joplin Globe to keep the case open to the public. The judge also reopened the court file in case.

Williams was sentenced to serve three years in prison after he pleaded guilty in Barry County to a charge of child molestation. Before his impending release on parole in December, the state filed a petition seeking to commit Williams for treatment as a sexual predator.

The defense contended that Williams has a constitutional right to privacy in regard to any allegations, diagnoses or treatment of any mental abnormalities that may have caused him to commit a sex crime.

In arguing to keep the case closed Friday, public defender T. Rae Van Dyk contended that Williams had a constitutional right to equal protection.

Amended law

Missouri probate law allows closed proceedings in cases where commitment is sought for mental health treatment.

Van Dyk contended that people subject to the sexual predator law should be treated the same as those in civil commitments.

Globe attorney Charles Buchanan argued that the sexual predator law is different from regular civil commitment procedures with separate rights defined by the law.

The state legislature last year amended the sexual predator law to specify that the cases be open to the public.

Sexual predator cases should be open to public scrutiny because of allegations that an offender is dangerous and is more likely than not to commit more crimes, Buchanan argued. The law was passed as a public safety measure, and the public has the right to know how the law is being applied, Buchanan contended.

The Globe also wanted the case file reopened because the public cannot learn when court proceedings are scheduled, the reasons for those proceedings or the outcome without access to docket sheets and pleadings, Buchanan said.

The judge said the sexual predator law is a hybrid of probate and criminal procedures. But he agreed that it is a special statute that carries different procedures than the civil commitment law.

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