A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge yesterday closed a pretrial hearing to the public and press in a high-security drug-related murder case.
Judge Audrey E. Melbourne said she was acting to bar access to the hearing under the guidelines of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year. That decision in the New York case of Gannett vs. DePasquale allows a judge to close such pretrial hearings -- though not the actual trial -- at the request of the defense attorney.
Melbourne also ordered all records sealed in the case against Robert Willie Young, who is scheduled for trial Aug. 11 on charges of murder, assualt with intent to murder and assualt with intent to maim.
Security around yesterday's hearing was described by court officials as the tightest in the last decade surrounding a Prince George's County trial. In addition to armed guards stationed around the courtroom, sharpshooters lined nearby rooftops.
According to County Sheriff James V. Aluisi, the security precautions are more extensive than they were for the county's two most celebrated murder trials of the last decade -- last year's controversial trial of Terrence Johnson, who slew two county policemen, and the 1972 trial of Arthur Bremmer for the shooting of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.
Young, 39, the defendant in the current case, allegedly has been linked to an international drug-smuggling ring, according to prosecution officials. Young, jailed without bond, is charged with murdering Greta Terry Sorrell, the wife of a man whom the prosecution describes as a drug courier in the ring.
Sorrell was shot to death in her Capitol Heights apartment in January 1977. Her husband, Joseph W. Sorrell also was hot but survived. Joseph Sorrell later testified against Linwood Gray when Gray was on trial last year for allegedly operating a $30 million international herion ring in Washington. Gray was acquitted of the drug charges in July.
Joseph Sorrell testified in that trial that he and his wife had been hired by Gray to be international heroin couriers.
After yesterday's four-hour court session, Melbourne said she closed the hearing "for everybody's best interest -- for everybody's health, safety, and welfare." She would not discuss the case further.
Sources said the pretrial hearing held yesterday was to discuss suppression of evidence in the trial, and that several prosecution witnesses were present.
As the hearing drew to a close around 4 p.m., 10 sheriff's deputies armed with semiautomatic rifles prevented two Washington Post reporters from entering the hearing.
The pretrial hearing was closed at the defendant's request. A defense attorney said the request was made partly because the need for security and partly for reasons strategic to the trial. The attorney would not elaborate. A spokesman for county prosecutor Arthur A. Marshall Jr. said prosecutors "did not vociferously object" to the request.
According to court officials, only select members of the press -- but not public spectators -- will be permitted to attend Young's trial Aug. 11.
A June report by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said that about 260 attempts have been made by judges across the country to close or uphold the closing of pretrial hearings and trials. Recently the Supreme Court issued a decision involving a Richmond newspaper stating that criminal trials may not be closed to the press without overriding cause.