President’s Column

Idaho media join together to push for open courts

By Betsy Russell News media organizations from across the state joined together this spring in an unprecedented effort to stand up for open court proceedings in one of the state’s most horrific criminal cases ever. Joseph Duncan already has admitted murdering three members of a North Idaho family in a bloody attack at the family’s home east of Coeur d’Alene, in order to kidnap and molest the family’s two youngest children. Only one little girl, then 8 years old, survived the ordeal; Shasta Groene was rescued from Duncan after a waitress and patrons at a Coeur d’Alene Denny’s restaurant recognized her seven weeks after the attack.

Now, Duncan is up for sentencing hearings in federal court in Boise. He’s already pleaded guilty to all charges in a 10-count federal indictment; three carry the death penalty. But as a huge pool of more than 300 potential jurors was called to decide whether Duncan should get the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, unprecedented secrecy hampered news reporters attempting to cover the case.

First, a huge number of the documents in the case were filed under seal, making it extremely difficult for the public to know what was going on in the case. Then came word that the judge was considering closing the courtroom to the press and public for the key pieces of evidence in the case: Possible testimony from the surviving victim, and the showing of a videotape of Duncan’s abuse of the little girl’s then-9-year-old brother, whom Duncan admits murdering.

The public cares very much whether or not Joseph Duncan gets the death penalty, and the reasons for the jury reaching its decision either way must be transparent, not secret. Attorneys for my newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, prepared legal challenges to the closures and sealings, and across the state, news outlets and journalism organizations, including the Idaho Press Club, signed on to support the effort and, in many cases, contribute toward it financially, some quite substantially.

At press time, the decision is still in the hands of the judge. But it’s worth noting that the media in Idaho is standing up for the public’s right to know, in a case that’s sensitive, difficult, and of huge public interest. No one wants to do anything to harm the little girl who survived these terrible crimes. In fact, at one point, both sides had reached an agreement to spare her from testifying in court, resolving to instead rely on a videotaped statement she provided to authorities after her rescue. Then that deal fell through.

The idea of closing the courtroom to the public and press wouldn’t spare the victim from having to testify in a courtroom crowded with attorneys, court personnel, law enforcement officers, and most importantly of all, her attacker. But it could undermine public confidence in our system of justice, and perhaps even provide grounds for a verdict to be overturned. Shielding the public from the videotape evidence, and its effect on the jurors, could have similar effect. Our system of justice relies on an open and transparent process. In notorious cases, that’s just as important, if not more so.

Here are the organizations that joined in this effort: The Spokesman-Review; Idaho State Broadcasters Association; The Associated Press; The Idaho Statesman; The Idaho Newspaper Foundation; Idaho Allied Daily Newspaper Publishers; Idaho Press Club; Idahoans for Openness in Government; KHQ-TV; KREM-TV; KXLY-TV; KTVB-TV; KTRV-TV; KBCI-TV; and KIVI-TV.

Betsy Russell is the president of the Idaho Press Club. She is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review.