Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court Decision on Closed Hearing Issue

An Illinois appellate court has reversed a lower court's decision in the case of People v. LaGrone, specifically in the matter of allowing the press and the public to attend hearings in which the trial court considered motions to suppress evidence in the case. The defendant had filed "(1) a motion in limine to bar testimony from minors D.F. and M.F. and (2) a motion for leave to file proffers of evidence under seal. Later in February 2005, the intervenors, the Associated Press, The Pantagraph, and the Herald & Review, filed petitions to intervene and for access. In March 2005, defendant filed (1) a motion in limine to bar Hamm's statements to police, (2) a motion in limine to bar certain opinion testimony by lay witnesses, (3) a motion in limine to bar certain hearsay statements of Austin Brown and Christopher Hamm (two of the victims), (4) a motion in limine to bar testimony of Shane Senters, and (5) a motion to seal defendant's motion to bar certain evidence as to his "character attributes." Later in March 2005, defendant filed a motion to close the following proceedings to the public: (1) the hearing on his motion to bar the testimony of D.F. and M.F., (2) the hearing on his motion to bar Hamm's statements, (3) the hearing on his motion to bar evidence as to his character attributes, and (4) the hearing on his motion to bar Austin's and Christopher's statements about him. Later that month, the trial court granted the intervenors' petition to intervene. At the May 2005 hearing on defendant's motion to close proceedings, the only pretrial issues that defendant sought to adjudicate in closed proceedings were (1) the admissibility of four statements made by Christopher and Austin and (2) the admissibility of certain evidence of defendant's character attributes."

After considering these requests, the trial judge ruled, "`It is a matter as to these two issues that I believe would jeopardize the fair trial rights of the defendant in this cause. There has been by way of proffer sufficient evidence presented to me to show me the facts that are going to be argued here. I recognize that these facts--I don't know all of them, myself; I know generally, general information about them, but I don't know everything there is to know about them. I will probably learn some of that during the motion and probably not all of it until the trial takes place. I think that this would jeopardize the selection of a jury. At this point, I see no alternative other than at least for these two motions to have a closed hearing. It is not going to be a practice that will take place on a consistent basis, but in these two instances, it would be appropriate. I know that there is some information that the State[,] at least according to counsel here today[,] has indicated that the State will confess and so I think in relation to the remaining evidence or the remaining matters that will be discussed during the course of these motions, that closure is essential to preserve the higher value of a fair trial of the defendant. For these two motions relating to these very specific issues, I will allow the motion and the matter will be closed, a closed hearing. I will indicate[,] however, that upon selection of the jury, the transcript of this hearing will be released.'"

After considering the relevant case law and constitutional law, the appellate court held the following: "The record of the trial court's remarks shows that the court made the following findings: (1) if the evidence was made public but ruled inadmissible, it would "tend" to present "more than a potential problem" in selecting a jury; (2) the history of publicity related to the case showed that the media was likely to constantly repeat the inadmissible evidence; and (3) the court saw no alternative to closure. We agree with the intervenors that the trial court's specific findings do not constitute a sufficient basis for closure under Press-Enterprise II. As the Court wrote, "[t]he [f]irst [a]mendment right of access cannot be overcome by the conclusory assertion that publicity might deprive the defendant" of his fair-trial right....The trial court's finding that the inadmissible evidence in the hands of the media would "tend" to create "more than a potential problem" selecting a jury is not a fact-specific finding showing a substantial probability that an impartial jury could not be chosen. Nor is it a finding that provides this court with sufficient factual material to conduct a meaningful review of the trial court's decision."

The court continued, "We acknowledge that the trial court made the specific factual finding that in the past, the media had frequently repeated details about this case. Thus, the court was concerned over the possibility that inadmissible evidence would be frequently repeated by the media. However, a speculative concern for how the media will use information should not justify the closure of criminal proceedings. The potential always exists that the media will misuse, misstate, or misconstrue the facts in reporting. A concern that the press will misuse inadmissible information is not sufficient to support a finding that a substantial probability exists that the defendant's fair-trial rights will be impinged. We further agree with the intervenors that the trial court failed to make specific factual findings supporting its conclusion that no alternatives to closure existed. In Press Enterprise I, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court could not constitutionally close voir dire proceedings because the trial court's order denying access failed to consider whether alternatives were available.... In this case, the trial court made no mention of alternatives to closure other than to state that it saw none. No finding was made as to why another change of venue could not occur or why the information at issue was so prejudicial that impartial jurors could not be chosen through voir dire. The trial court's findings, in addition to being vague and conclusory, fail to address the question that should lie at the heart of a trial court's decision to close a criminal proceeding. That question is not whether the information would taint potential jurors, but whether the circumstances of access would make it so that voir dire could not remedy any taint. Widespread publicity does not necessarily result in widespread knowledge among potential jurors of the facts reported ....Thus, the trial court's factual findings must show that the pretrial publicity would inflame and prejudice the entire community such that even through voir dire, an unbiased jury could not be seated. The trial court's findings in this case did not support that conclusion. Finally, we note that in this case, the trial court had already changed venue, no doubt to provide access to a jury pool from which an impartial jury could be chosen. In such cases, the likelihood that the court would need to conduct proceedings in secret is (or at least should be) dramatically diminished. Thus, under these circumstances, an even greater need exists for the trial court to make specific factual findings as to why closure was warranted."

Read the entire opinion here.

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