A virus spread through Lawrence General Hospital this past week, though it wasn’t the kind most people go to the hospital to have treated. Secrecy was the name of this infection — the kind that has become insidious in our district and superior courts.
It was brought to Lawrence General by way of Giovanni Lebron, accused in the murder of Nicole Connor, age 24. Her body was discovered in the Spicket River near Manchester Street Park in Lawrence last Tuesday. On Thursday, Lebron's body lay in a hospital bed, and he was arraigned — the legal proceeding where charges against him are read — in his hospital room. The reason he was in that bed and unable to appear in court were not made clear.
In most such scenarios, the hospital room becomes a de facto courtroom. A judge stands there, alongside a clerk and perhaps court officers. An arraignment is a public event, so members of the media are permitted to attend, often following the same guidelines about photography and video as are imposed in a regular courtroom.
But not last Thursday. Instead, District Court Judge Mark Sullivan kept the media at bay, without explanation. The judge did not make himself available to members of the press who asked to object to a closed hearing. Further, he agreed to wrap up the case — specifically the criminal complaint against Lebron and its supporting documents — with the shroud of an impoundment order.
The very idea of a secret arraignment is chilling. It's in the interest of a transparent criminal justice system, held accountable to the people it serves, that the venue where someone accused of a crime first appears remain public. That’s not just important for the accused — imagine if police could arrest you and haul you before a judge, unbeknownst to anyone — it’s important to victims and their families, and to the community at large.
It serves the public’s right to know what’s happening, and the right of the press to report on it.
“Any secret court hearing flies in the face of the First Amendment,” Andover attorney Peter Caruso, who works with the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told reporter Jill Harmacinski, who tried in vain to cover Lebron’s hospital-room arraignment on behalf of The Eagle-Tribune.
Sullivan surely had his reasons for closing the proceeding. It’s unlikely that we’ll find out what they are. Jennifer Donahue, spokesperson for the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, said in an email statement to Harmacinski that Sullivan “made the decision to exclude the media from the hospital arraignment after he spoke to two treating doctors, viewed the hospital room where the defendant was held, and reviewed the court rule regarding media access to court proceedings.” Whatever he found objectionable enough to warrant closing a hearing in a murder case — few other matters in his court could be more important to the public interest — he did not say. He issued no written decision explaining himself.
Not only that, as Harmacinski later noted, the hearing was not recorded as all such proceedings are. Donahue acknowledged that as a mistake that would be addressed by the court so that it does not happen again.
The secret hearing at Lawrence General last week might be less objectionable if it were a one-time occurrence of secrecy befalling the courthouse. It wasn’t. While arraignments have not been closed, the practice of sealing court records, especially in criminal cases with heightened public interest, has become routine in area courthouses.
In at least nine noteworthy cases on the North Shore and Merrimack Valley in the past year, judges at the request of a prosecutor “impounded,” or sealed up, pertinent police reports, affidavits or search warrants. It happened in the case last fall of a Gloucester man accused of assaulting a child at a YMCA camp. It happened this past spring in a case involving four people in Beverly accused of forcing a woman with mental illness into prostitution. It happened earlier this month when an Amesbury man was charged with killing another man in Lawrence. And it happened in Labron’s case.
As was noted last year, when Caruso argued to unseal records in the case of a Methuen home invasion, courts do not always follow the proper protocol when impounding files. Court rules require prosecutors to state a reason for the secrecy, and a judge to cite her or his rationale for placing a seal. Those important steps are often missed, and those who rely on the criminal justice system to protect them suffer for it.
Conducting court business in the shadows may be faster, easier and even cheaper. Doubtless it’s less messy for prosecutors and judges who'd prefer not to work in the glare of the spotlight. But doing so also robs the public of its right to know what’s happening in our courthouses. Access and transparency are essential to ensure the public’s trust in the criminal justice system.
This insidious secrecy must end.