1st Amendment triumphs in court | SteamboatToday.com

1st Amendment triumphs in court

Crime and Courts

— District Judge Shelley Hill on Thursday ruled that a Jan. 26 court hearing should not have been closed to the public, and the transcripts should be released.

On Jan. 26, a preliminary hearing for Miguel Diaz-Martinez was scheduled. Diaz-Martinez has been charged with 41 felonies related to accusations that he exchanged drugs for sex with underage girls.

Diaz-Martinez ultimately decided he did not want a preliminary hearing, and the case was bound over to District Court, where felonies are heard.

It was disclosed in court during the Jan. 26 hearing that Diaz-Martinez had been offered a plea deal.

In a rare move, Routt County Judge James Garrecht offered to close his courtroom to the public for a few minutes. District Attorney Brett Barkey said he wanted to state the plea deal on the record, but he did not think it was appropriate in this case to do it publicly.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today requested the transcripts, believing court should not have been held in secret.

Hill agreed.

"Once the public is excluded, that First Amendment right has been abridged," Hill said.

The defense and prosecution argued that releasing the transcript containing the plea offer would harm the ability to seat an impartial jury. They were concerned that, if an impartial jury could not be found, the trial would have to be held in another county.

Because of that, District Attorney Brett Barkey said there was an overriding and compelling interest to close the courtroom to the public.

"As we all know, there is a clash between two constitutional divisions," Hill said.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, while the Sixth Amendment guarantees a person the right to a fair trial.

Hill said there were times when the freedom of the press might be limited, but she had the ability to ensure Diaz-Martinez still receives a fair trial.

Hill said pre-trial media coverage helps ensure an open, competent judicial system based on integrity and fundamental fairness.

"Without constitutional freedom of the press and public scrutiny, government, including the judicial, and for trials themselves, could easily become secret proceedings where fundamental fairness could always be suspect," Hill said.

The court is preparing the transcripts for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

On Thursday, Diaz-Martinez was scheduled for an arraignment to either plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. The arraignment was postponed until 2:30 p.m. April 26.

Also on Thursday, Hill partially denied a request from the Steamboat Pilot & Today to take photos in the courtroom.

The defense did not want photos taken, because it felt doing so might endanger Diaz-Martinez's right to a fair trial.

Hill ruled photos could not be taken while Diaz-Martinez appeared in jail clothing. Diaz-Martinez was still in custody and in jail clothing Thursday.

Photos will be allowed if there is a trial. During trials, defendants are allowed to wear normal clothing to avoid the appearance of guilt in front of jurors.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today will still not be allowed to show Diaz-Martinez wearing shackles.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland