Thursday, July 24, 2014

Judge weighs public access to case of teen charged with killing 2 brothers

By Emiley Morgan, Deseret News

Published: Thu, June 5 3:30 p.m. MDT

 Alex Vidinhar, 10, left, and his brother Benjie, 4, were stabbed to death in their West Point home on May 22, 2013. Their older brother, now 16, is charged with two counts of murder in their deaths. A juvenile court judge is deciding whether the teenager should stand trial as an adult and is also weighing whether the public will be allowed to attend his certification hearing.

Alex Vidinhar, 10, left, and his brother Benjie, 4, were stabbed to death in their West Point home on May 22, 2013. Their older brother, now 16, is charged with two counts of murder in their deaths. A juvenile court judge is deciding whether the teenager should stand trial as an adult and is also weighing whether the public will be allowed to attend his certification hearing.

(Family photos)

FARMINGTON — A juvenile court judge tasked with considering whether a 16-year-old should stand trial as an adult in the killings of his two younger brothers is now determining whether the public should have access to the hearing that will guide her decision.

The teenager’s attorneys are asking that the hearing be closed, citing sensitive information about the boy's fragile psychological state. But the Deseret News, KSL and other news media outlets are fighting the closure of the hearing because of the seriousness of the crimes.

“The details (of that hearing) are what’s going to be forming the basis of your decision,” media attorney David Reymann argued Thursday. “The core of the court’s decision is going to be this psychological information.”

Second District Juvenile Judge Janice Frost said she has to balance the needs of the teenager — who is charged with two counts of murder — and the rehabilitation-minded goals of the juvenile court with the presumption of openness. She declined to make a decision Thursday but said she would make one in advance of the hearing, which is scheduled to begin June 25.

The teenager is charged with stabbing his brothers Alex Vidinhar, 10, and 4-year-old Benjie to death in their West Point home on May 22, 2013. The two had been left in the care of their then-15-year-old brother while their mother and sisters were away at a dance recital.

When the mother returned home, she discovered her boys’ bodies. The older brother was found hours later, several miles away, and was arrested.

By law, juvenile court hearings are presumed open to the public when a juvenile 14 or older is charged with what would be a felony in adult court. But in a motion that was originally sealed, defense attorney Todd Utzinger argued there was "good cause" to make the certification hearing to determine whether his client is prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult private.

“The hearing will involve extensive, highly sensitive psychological information about (the teenager) that should not be revealed to the public,” Utzinger wrote, also arguing that public access to the hearing could harm the teenager’s fair trial rights.

But Reymann argued that while the information may be sensitive, it will be crucial to the judge’s decision. The public has a right to know about the inner workings of the justice system and what information the judge uses to make her important decision.

“I want to address the fact that (the teenager) doesn’t want this information to be public,” he said. “I understand that, but he has been charged with double murder. … He doesn’t get to dictate the terms of these proceedings. That’s dictated by the law.”

While there have been many high-profile cases in Utah, there has never been a case in which there was a reversal of a defendant's conviction because of pretrial publicity, Reymann and other media attorneys have argued in similar cases.

Thursday, both Utzinger and the teen’s court-appointed guardian ad litem attorney, Debra Jensen, stated that the boy’s psychological state continues to be fragile and that he has threatened to harm himself if public access to the hearing is allowed.

“(The teenager) is already on suicide watch partly because of the attention this case has garnered,” Utzinger said.

He added that the publicity of the case has harmed both the child and his family, which he said has had to leave their neighborhood due to curious passers-by. He also reiterated the age of his client.

“(The juvenile) is still a child,” Utzinger said. “He is not a ‘mister’ in my book. He is still a child and we are still dealing with if he is going to have the protections of a child.”

But Reymann pointed out that every high-profile case involving a violent crime filed in juvenile court could be closed based on the defense attorney's rationale.

“This case generated public interest because of the nature of the crime,” Reymann said. “The publicity is difficult to deal with in every high profile case.”

Frost took the issue under advisement and said she would likely have a ruling June 13, in advance of the June 25 certification hearing.

In addition to the Deseret News and KSL, Reymann is also representing the Standard-Examiner, KSTU Ch. 13, the Salt Lake Tribune and KTVX Ch. 4.

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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1. RBN
Salt Lake City, UT,
June 5, 2014

No juvenile court hearing should ever be open to the public. It is clearly contrary to the primary purpose of juvenile courts: to rehabilitate the offender.

2. KJR
Alpine, UT,
June 9, 2014

Or, with equal logic: ALL juvenile court hearing should be open the the public. The decision as to whether a specific juvenile is more likely to be rehabilitated or become a danger to society is a matter of grave public concern. And I dispute that making the issue public is "clearly contrary" to the purpose of the juvenile courts even if it's primary (and definitely not its ONLY) purpose is rehabilitation. Perhaps public access and exposure has some preventive or rehabilitative value. Logic tells me that if a young offender is shielded from all consequences - including public accountability - he or she is likely to feel that they really "got away with it." To the extent these policies are based on any scientific (or maybe pseudo-scientific) thinking at all, they should still be trumped by the public concern for safety.

3. RBN
Salt Lake City, UT,
June 10, 2014

@KJR
By all means, let's reinstitute the scarlet letter. We need more of a vigilante society. Can you be serious when you suggest that scientific evidence should take a back seat to the public's concern for safety? The public will have virtually zero concern to rehabilitate and be entirely focused on punishment. Courts and specialists have better tools to balance the two.
Have you or anyone that you know ever had an experience with juvenile court? It's doubtful because you would have a different view of it. Kids are punished. They do have to be accountable.