Times-News takes legal steps to unseal Jerome murder case

From the Times-News

By Andrea Jackson
Times-News writer

The Times-News has challenged the closure of hearings and the sealing of documents in the murder case against Fortino Leon of Jerome.

In court papers filed Friday, Times-News attorney Fritz Haemmerle cited a recent closure of a hearing in the case, sealing of key court documents and confusion over the status of the case in requesting a hearing to argue that the proceedings should be open to public view.

Haemmerle argued the public has a constitutional right to observe court proceedings.

“Public access to criminal trials permits the public to participate in and serve as a check upon the judicial process, an essential component in our structure of self-government,” Haemmerle wrote. “It should be evident that logic dictates that the public has a right to know why a defendant facing murder charges is not being tried, or when that defendant might be tried.”

The mental competency of Leon, 73, has been at issue in the court since he was 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 alleged shooting of his estranged wife, Maria Leon, 41, who was apparently living with Zavala-Paniagua at the time of the shootings.

The case has not proceeded to a preliminary hearing or grand jury because the court has yet to rule if Leon is mentally fit to stand trial.

On April 15, 5th District Judge Jason Walker had granted requests from the Times-News and KMVT-TV to video record and photograph Leon’s court appearance the following day. But “thereafter, without any explanation, the court ordered the case closed to the public, and reporters … removed from the courtroom,” Haemmerle wrote.

On April 17, Walker issued a written order that also sealed various documents, saying it was “to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” though he did not specify why closure was needed to do so. In previous hearings he had denied defense motions to close the case, saying it was important to keep it open.

“Prior to the order being issued there was no public hearing or fact-finding made by the court as to why the order was issued or why it was necessary to seal the documents,” Haemmerle wrote. “The last hearing on this matter was abruptly shut without the court explaining what aspect of the criminal case remains open, if any.

“The right to a fair trial is fundamental, significant and important,” Haemmerle wrote. “However, the court has not recognized or evaluated the public’s equally compelling right to access under the First Amendment. This right needs to be acknowledged and addressed. Only when the state’s interest is found to be more compelling can the court prevent the public’s right to access.”

Times-News Editor James G. Wright said the newspaper is acting as the public’s representative in asserting that sealing court files and closing proceedings runs counter to basic principles of American democracy.

“Any effort to wall off our courts from the public, even with the best of intentions, erodes our fundamental civil rights and undermines respect for the rule of law,” Wright said Friday. “The public cannot have confidence in the fairness and competence of its judicial system if it cannot see that system at work.”

While not a party in Friday’s filing, the Associated Press has agreed to help cover the cost of the legal challenge, Wright said.

Haemmerle asked for a hearing on the motions to be set for June 11.

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

From the Times-News

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