Mahoning judge rejects motion to ban press in court
YOUNGSTOWN — The attorney for aggravated murder defendant Robert L. Moore recently asked Judge Maureen Sweeney of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to exclude news reporters from certain hearings in Moore’s case.
Moore is charged in the disappearance and presumed 2009 death of 16-year-old Smith Township girl Glenna J. White.
Attorney Jeffrey Haupt of Alliance filed a motion last Tuesday seeking to “exclude the media from the courtroom during any and all pretrial hearings where evidence may be (mentioned), or argument made thereupon by (the attorneys).”
The filing says the request is made because Haupt will try to suppress “certain evidence that may or may not wind up being admitted during trial.”
Sweeney denied the motion.
The filing is extraordinary in that such a request is rare and almost never successful, a First Amendment lawyer from Cleveland said.
Attorney David Marburger, who has advised The Vindicator, Tribune Chronicle and other newspapers over the years, said denying this type of motion “would be the norm” among judges in the United States.
“Motions like this have rarely succeeded since 1986,” Marburger said of the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided that “certain kinds of preliminary hearings are presumptively open to the press.”
“The normal ruling on motions like this is, we don’t close the hearings to the press because there are other ways to protect the fair-trial rights of the accused other than to shut the press and the public out of the hearings — because these hearings are pretty doggone important. They will decide what evidence will not be admitted against the accused.
“So, if you attend the trial and don’t know what happened at the pretrial suppression hearing, then you don’t know a really important — and maybe outcome determinative” — part of the case, he said.
Frequently, a defendant will ask for evidence gathered by the police to be suppressed on constitutionality grounds, Marburger noted.
For example, a defendant might ask for a confession to be suppressed from evidence on the grounds that the suspect was not sufficiently advised of his or her constitutional right to remain silent.
“You’re talking about the constitutional conduct of the police,” he said. “You’re having a (ruling) by the court of the constitutionality of police conduct. That shouldn’t be held in secret. If the court is going to suppress evidence that might determine the outcome of the trial, sometimes the case ends. They don’t have a trial. If the prosecution’s main evidence is suppressed, then there’s no trial.”
He said one flaw in Haupt’s filing is that it was not specific enough as to the evidence Haupt did not want the public to hear about.
“It would not be enough in any court to justify barring the public, and the public and the press, from these pretrial hearings,” he said of the filing.
Marburger said there could be circumstances in which certain information could be withheld from the public prior to trial.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t remember situations. I’m sure sometimes these motions have been granted since 1986 throughout the United States, but it would be exceedingly rare,” he said.
Sweeney also denied other motions Haupt recently filed — one asking that Moore, 51, of Alliance — be allowed to appear at pretrial hearings in civilian clothing and without shackles or handcuffs. He will be allowed to wear civilian clothing during the trial, which is scheduled for Feb. 28.
Last week, a hearing in the case discussed motions Haupt had filed earlier, such as one asking that Sweeney suppress from evidence testimony about “other crimes, wrongs or bad acts” committed by Moore.
Mahoning County prosecutors opposed the motion, saying there is good reason to introduce evidence at the trial of Moore’s admitted killing of Virginia Lecorchick, 22, in 1993, at Berlin Lake.
Prosecutors argued that a jury should hear about the Lecorchick killing because the details of that killing are “strikingly similar” to the details of late June 2, 2009, and early June 3, 2009, when White went missing.
Moore was convicted in Stark County Common Pleas Court of killing Lecorchick. Moore was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison, according to court records.
Haupt argued that improperly admitted evidence of other crimes or wrong acts “often results in reversal of criminal convictions” and added that such information “would be unfairly prejudicial” to Moore.
In Haupt’s filing asking for reporters to be excluded from certain hearings, he similarly stated that his reason was because news coverage might “taint” the jury pool.
Haupt’s filing states that “while the public in general may have a (rudimentary) interest in courtroom proceedings, the overpowering interest lie with the accused.”