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Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014

In our opinion: Judge should release courtroom testimony central to case against Angel Garcia

Deseret News editorial

Published: Wed, May 28 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Angel Vizuet Garcia makes his initial court appearance in Salt Lake City Wednesday, January 30, 2013.

Angel Vizuet Garcia makes his initial court appearance in Salt Lake City Wednesday, January 30, 2013.

(Trent Nelson)

Angel Vizuet Garcia is charged with repeatedly sexually assaulting a teenage girl over a period of years. It’s the sort of case that shocks a community and leads people to question how such a thing could go undetected.

The case is, by any definition of the word, newsworthy in a state that values children. But at least one definition of newsworthy has to do with the public’s need to understand the nature of the charges and to keep the justice system accountable for how it adjudicates such serious allegations.

Unfortunately, an important portion of the preliminary hearing that ended with Garcia being bound over for trial — the testimony of the young alleged victim — has so far been kept from public view. This courtroom testimony was given at a March 7 hearing in which the judge dismissed the media and the public from the courtroom while the girl testified.

In response to a motion by the Deseret News to unseal the girl’s testimony, 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck last week acknowledged doing so would be correct under the law and said his decision to close the hearing was “inappropriate.” But he then balked at following his own judgment, said reporters were just trying to sell newspapers, chastised them for not covering the lesser day-to-day proceedings of the court in order to keep the system accountable, and said he will consider first whether to allow the girl an attorney, or guardian ad litem, to speak on her behalf in the matter.

We are sensitive to the nature of this case and the age of the alleged victim. However, descriptions of the alleged crimes against her already are well-known and widely available on the Internet, having been reported at the time of Garcia’s arrest and added to by the testimony of others during the preliminary hearing. The victim was missing for a time in January 2013, setting off a massive search involving more than 1,000 volunteers in sub-freezing temperatures.

News reports at the time described how the girl was found at a Walmart. She admitted staying for two days at Garcia’s home after crawling out her bedroom window in Herriman. Initially, police said they did not suspect she had been sexually assaulted, but they later changed their minds based on her statements to investigators.

Given the public’s involvement in this case, including the hunt for the missing girl, her testimony is key to understanding what happened and why Garcia has been bound over for trial.

The judge may have deeply held feelings about the news media, but it is troubling that he would rule on the meaning of a law and then balk at applying that ruling.

The issue of providing the alleged victim with a guardian ad litem attorney was raised by the attorney for Garcia, not by prosecutors or the girl. Garcia has an obvious motive for keeping testimony against him out of public view.

This is a matter that ought to have been decided quickly and without hesitation. The judge ruled a transcript of the testimony should be made public. He acknowledged that “these cases don’t allow the sealing of cases based on emotions.” Any potential arguments by a guardian ad litem at this point should be irrelevant.

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