Newspapers appeal hearing closure
Published 10:22 am Wednesday, December 21, 2016
By Tracy Agnew
Special to The Tidewater News
Attorneys for two newspapers have filed a joint appeal of a decision made by a Suffolk judge last week to bar the media from attending a preliminary hearing in the case of a state delegate charged with several felonies.
The Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot on Friday filed the appeal of the decision made by Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Robert Brewbaker.
Brewbaker denied entry into the courtroom to at least five media outlets — which also included The Suffolk News-Herald, The Smithfield Times and WAVY-TV10 — during the hearing last Thursday in the case against Del. Richard Lee “Rick” Morris.
Morris was charged with seven felonies and seven misdemeanors stemming from alleged abuse of his wife and an adolescent child in the home. Thirteen of the charges were dismissed or not prosecuted during the hearing, leaving one felony charge moving forward.
Three warrants Morris had taken out against his wife, Kathryn Morris, following his arrest also were not prosecuted during the hearing.
Johan Conrod, an attorney with Kaufman & Canoles who represents The Daily Press, said Monday that the hearing was a serious public concern.
“The defendant is a member of the General Assembly,” he said. “For that reason among others, this is an issue of serious public concern.”
Conrod said a state code statute, 16.1-302, provides that juvenile court proceedings involving adult defendants are supposed to be open.
If the court does close a hearing, it has to provide a written statement of its reasons and pursue alternatives to full closure, such as keeping the name of any juvenile witnesses sealed while allowing other coverage.
Brewbaker stated in his order that attorneys for both sides in the hearing objected to media being present because the key witness was a child. Even the hearing regarding whether media would be allowed was closed.
Conrod also said the judge erred by allowing a member of the public to sit in on the hearing, but not the media.
“The media is the public — it’s the eyes and ears of the public,” Conrod said. “There’s a pretty established body of case law that says you cannot make that distinction between members of the public and members of the media.”
Conrod went to the courthouse after the media was barred and attempted to gain access to the hearing, he said. A bailiff told him to leave. After about an hour, he was granted access to the judge and had the chance to argue the media’s case. Brewbaker asked about which code section he was referencing but ultimately didn’t budge, Conrod said.
“There is some balancing that needs to happen, but there’s a process and a procedure that also has to happen whereby that balancing is done appropriately,” Conrod said. There may be concern about the privacy of the child, but “there are ways to address those concerns short of closing the entire hearing to any media coverage,” Conrod said.
The closure of the hearing can’t be undone, but Conrod said the attorneys will attempt to get the transcript released and ensure access in the future.
“We want to make sure there’s access to further proceedings in this particular case and we want to make sure going forward these kinds of concerns, not just in this case but in future cases, are addressed so we can minimize these kinds of closures,” Conrod said.
Meanwhile, Morris issued a statement on Monday in which he expressed gratitude to supporters and well-wishers.
“This is the first step on the road to vindication,” he said.
The two-page statement gives Morris’ version of what happened during the court proceeding. He said he paid for a court reporter to attend and transcribe the hearing.
On Monday, Morris said he would like to release the transcript but wants to make sure doing so won’t run afoul of the judge’s order.
He also lamented that “there’s a lot more to this than what the media has been reporting,” despite the fact his attorney argued to close Thursday’s hearing to the media.
“Again, I thank all those who’ve expressed their well-wishes and prayers, and I will continue to defend myself from these false accusations until the sole remaining charge is dismissed as well,” he said.