Judge shuts public out of murder case hearing

From the Times-News

Unusual move comes without warning or explanation

By Andrea Jackson
Times-News writer

JEROME – Fifth District Court Judge Jason Walker Thursday shut the public out of a criminal hearing in a first-degree murder case without saying if 73-year-old Fortino Leon is mentally fit to stand trial or why he was sealing the case.

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.

He is accused of first-degree murder for the July shooting of Javier Zavala-Paniagua, 22, outside a Jerome residence at 221 Fifth Ave. E. Leon is also charged with aggravated assault and aggravated battery for shooting his estranged wife, Maria Leon, 41.

Neighbors have said Maria Leon was living with Zavala-Paniagua for at a least a month before the shooting unfolded in front of their home on a sunny day, along a quiet residential street, in the presence of children riding on scooters.

On Thursday, just a day after granting media requests to allow cameras in the courtroom, Walker without explanation closed the hearing and asked reporters to leave the courtroom. He said only that he was granting a motion from prosecutors “to seal the proceedings.” There was no discussion of that motion in the open courtroom.

Walker allowed lawyers in the case, witnesses, and Maria Leon to remain in court.

Sealing a murder proceeding is unusual, even when issues involve the mental health of the accused, local attorneys familiar with such cases said Thursday. Judges commonly weigh matters in open court, and close proceedings only after ruling the defendant is not competent to stand trial. It’s unclear why Walker, a former Minidoka County prosecutor appointed to the bench in Camas County in 2007, closed his courtroom at this time, or what might come next for Leon.

A specific motion from the state to seal proceedings has not been filed, nor is there an order of involuntary commitment, according to the Idaho State Judiciary online case repository on Thursday. Leon’s paper case file was unavailable for public inspection, but an application for involuntary commitment filed Tuesday contains the state’s motion, according to the clerk’s office in Jerome.

In closing the courtroom, Walker apologized to reporters, saying, “So I’ve done what I hate to do to the press, and that is, I told you, you could be here, only to tell you, you can’t be here.” He said he granted the state’s motion “because of the nature of the proceedings … And the importance of the issues that I have to deal with today.”

He said he couldn’t tell the public what might happen at Thursday’s hearing.

“What’s going to take place … I’m afraid I can’t even share with you that at this point,” he said.

The Jerome County prosecutor on the case, Paul Kroeger would not say why he asked Walker to seal proceedings.

It’s not the first time, though, that Walker has been asked to bar the public from hearings in this case. But in September the judge denied a defense request to close Leon’s preliminary hearing, saying that, “It’s important for the public to understand what’s going on in this case.”

At that hearing, Walker sealed a psychological report at the request of prosecutors and the defense. Sealing reports of that nature is not uncommon.

Walker extended Leon’s commitment in December and then again February, after the IDOC detailed Leon’s mental condition in letters to the court. Walker previously decided to keep those IDOC letters about Leon open for public view.

On Dec. 10, the IDOC said Leon could not assist in his own defense, but it added “if he is provided with appropriate interventions from attending Department of Correction clinical staff Mr. Leon may be re-evaluated for competency to assist in his own defense.”

A Jan. 29 IDOC letter filed in court said Leon “has exhibited some progress” but still lacked the ability to participate in his own defense.

Leon claimed memory problems in July during a first court appearance, requesting medication and saying “I don’t have a good memory.”

From the Times-News

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