Judge: Hearing closed to protect defendant’s rights

From the Times-News

By Andrea Jackson
Times-News writer

Fifth District Court Judge Jason Walker said Friday that he closed a status hearing on the commitment of an accused murderer “to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” even though prior proceedings related to the man’s mental competency have been held in open court during the 9-month-old criminal case.

Fortino Leon, 73, is accused of first-degree murder in the July shooting of Javier Zavala-Paniagua, 22, in the street in front of his home in Jerome. He also is charged with aggravated assault and aggravated battery in relation to the shooting of his estranged wife, Maria Leon, 41, who was living with Zavala-Paniagua at the time.

Walker on Thursday abruptly closed Leon’s status hearing – a day after granting media permission to place cameras in the courtroom – without saying why, or determining whether Leon was fit for trial.

On Friday, Walker signed an order saying Leon “continues to lack the capacity to assist in his own defense … It is unlikely that the defendant will be fit to proceed in the foreseeable future.”

That order stays proceedings for at least 180 days so the state can continue to monitor Leon.

“If at any time the Department of Health and Welfare determines the defendant is fit to proceed with trial it shall immediately notify the court and the matter shall be set for a hearing,” the judge’s order said. “If, after a hearing on the matter, the court agrees…and finds the conditions which justified the commitment to the department do not continue to exist, criminal proceedings may resume.”

Walker’s belated written order doesn’t say if he will also bar the public from the next scheduled hearing in the case, which is set for Oct. 15. Nor does it say how closing Thursday’s hearing preserved Leon’s rights. Leon’s mental status was discussed in open court in at least three previous hearings.

Leon’s mental fitness has been in question since at least November, when he was placed in the Idaho Department of Correction Secure Medical Program. Letters addressing Leon’s mental condition have been part of the public court file, and have been discussed by attorneys in at least two open court hearings that resulted in prior commitment extensions. Walker had previously rejected defense motions to close the case to the public. Thursday’s closure came in response to a motion from the prosecution.

“Judge Walker’s action is baffling, particularly in light of his previous strong statement that it is important that the public know the facts of this case,” said James G. Wright, editor of the Times-News. “We have asked our attorney to review the closure and we are considering our options in ensuring that the public isn’t shut out of future proceedings in this or any other murder case.”

Speaking on behalf of 5th Judicial District Administrative Judge Barry Wood, who is out of town and unavailable for comment, District Court Judge John Melanson of Rupert said judges don’t want to the public to think they’re acting in secret.

“The courts are sensitive to the need to keep hearings open,” Melanson said. “I think a judge has it in his power to close a proceeding when he determines it should be done.”

Andrea Jackson may be reached at 208-735-3380 or ajackson@magicvalley.com

From the Times-News

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