The press was banished from the courtroom Thursday during the transfer hearing for four 17-year-olds who prosecutors want to try as adults for the robbery and murder of Oswaldo Luna.
“Out of an abundance of caution, I’m going to close this hearing while we take up sensitive matters involving the teens,” said Juvenile Court Judge Bill Locke in clearing the room of all but parents of the four juvenile suspects. “We don’t want to risk error as we go forward.”
Locke made the decision to clear the courtroom after he was prompted by a motion presented by Public Defender John Partin.
“I don’t think the press should be permitted to be present during this matter,” Partin protested just before a hearing was to begin for Charles Guess, Malik Scott, Melvin Horn and alleged trigger man Sam Brinkley. He maintained juvenile law allows the court to limit public exposure in juvenile matters.
Brinkley reportedly confessed to panicking and opening fire as they were trying to rob Luna of marijuana. The fact the press had been present for prior hearings made Locke question why Partin would now request the transfer hearing be closed.
“They’ve already sat through the transfer hearing,” Locke declared, noting most of the state’s case has been reported in the Southern Standard.
Partin maintained the law allows the court to close juvenile proceedings. Locke countered that in cases of serious crimes like criminal homicide, press access is enhanced.
Tennessee Press Association attorney Rick Hollow agrees, noting the law specifically spells out crimes in which juvenile records become open. The list includes criminal homicide.
“Juvenile court proceedings are confidential except in cases where the juvenile is over 14 and charged with a serious crime,” said Hollow, spelling out crimes such as aggravated rape, aggravated robbery, first and second-degree murder and other serious crimes.
With that being said, Hollow said judges do have the ability to close cases if they deem it nec-essary to further justice. However, procedure dictates notice be given in advance so the parties, in this case the press, can be ready to voice its opposition to a closed courtroom. No notice was given to the Southern Standard prior to Partin voicing his protest in court.
“The court needs to balance the right of the people for openness and the right of the defend-ant to have a fair trial,” Judge Locke said in making his decision.