A Fairfax County judge delayed a hearing in a murder case yesterday to give attorneys for newspapers time to argue why the hearing should not be closed to reporters.
Reporters were locked out of a preliminary hearing yesterday in the case of Patricia Schaefer, an Annandale woman charged with murder in the shooting death of her estranged husband.
The hearing was scheduled in Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, where preliminary hearings in felony cases involving family members are held to determine whether there is enough evidence to send the case to a grand jury for indictment.
Schaefer's attorney, Chanda Kinsey, argued yesterday that the hearing should be closed to reporters, citing a Virginia law that gives a defendant a right to a closed hearing in juvenile court. Kinsey said Schaefer wanted to protect her children, who had been subpoenaed to testify. "She thinks it would be bad," Kinsey said. "It's detrimental to the children."
Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. argued that the hearing be opened to reporters, citing the Virginia Constitution, which he said "mandates a public hearing in all criminal trials" involving adults.
Horan said that a judge cannot close criminal hearings in Virginia without giving the media notice. He also said that it did not matter whether juveniles would testify. "Under that theory, all you have to do is run some juvenile in to testify and you can close every hearing in Virginia."
Reporters stood outside the locked courtroom yesterday while Kinsey and Horan argued. Judge Arnold B. Kassabian set a hearing for Wednesday to allow attorneys for The Washington Post to argue for an open hearing. The Fairfax Journal also may join in the argument.
Barbara Percival, an attorney for The Post, said that preliminary hearings in murder cases traditionally are open to the public. "The fact that this should be in Juvenile and Domestic Court should not change the law.
"We're in the dark as to why the judge closed the courtroom here. It is a criminal case with an adult defendant and there is no reason it shouldn't be open to the public and the press as are all other criminal proceedings."
Schaefer, 46, was arrested June 7 in the two-story brick colonial house in the 3900 block of Prosperity Avenue, where Richard Schaefer was found fatally shot March 6, the eve of their final divorce hearing. Police have said Patricia Schaefer and three of the children were at home when the shooting occurred. Her divorce lawyer called police to the home after the shooting.
The Schaefers had been embroiled in a bitter divorce case since 1987.