A Fairfax County judge ruled yesterday that a murder hearing scheduled for next week will be open to the public, rejecting a defense lawyer's contention that it should be closed because it involves "intrafamily" matters.
Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Arnold B. Kassabian, agreeing with the county prosecutor and attorneys for two newspapers, said that barring the media would violate the federal and state constitutions and that no "overriding" evidence had been offered by the defense.
Patricia Schaefer, 46, has been charged with murdering her estranged husband, Richard Schaefer, at her Annandale house on March 6, the eve of their final divorce proceeding. She had sought to bar reporters from her preliminary hearing because four of her children have been subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify.
Complaining that Schaefer and her children had been harassed by the media and others because of the publicity, her attorney, Chanda L. Kinsey, said state law guaranteed any defendant in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court the right to a closed hearing because it is a "unique" court designed to protect the privacy of families.
Under Virginia law, preliminary hearings in criminal cases involving family members are heard in the juvenile and domestic court. However, Schaefer would, if indicted, eventually be tried in Circuit Court.
"It's hard enough for kids, I would think, to testify under these circumstances, but to testify in front of strangers about these circumstances would be traumatic," Kinsey said after the ruling.
Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., joined by attorneys for The Washington Post and the Fairfax Journal, argued that a 1981 Virginia Supreme Court ruling dictated that criminal proceedings be open regardless of the court or who would testify. "It strikes me as rather peculiar that a 6-year-old victim can testify in a public trial and a 14-year-old can't," Horan said.
"This is a murder case," added Barbara A. Mack, representing The Post. "The defendant is charged with murdering her husband. It's critical that the public" have access.
Kinsey used the hearing to criticize the media for "reckless journalism" that she said has presumed Schaefer's guilt and caused harassment of her family.
"The newspapers have already convicted Ms. Schaefer," Kinsey said. "There's no question about that."
Kinsey also complained about the conduct of a Post photographer who took pictures of Schaefer and four of her children as they emerged from the courthouse last week.
Kinsey said the photographer followed the group into her law office and continued snapping pictures even after they boarded an elevator. The photographer twice pushed the outside button to keep the door open while he shot and then cursed at her when she prevented him from doing so a third time, Kinsey said.
Joe Elbert, the Post's assistant managing editor for photography, said he looked into the situation after the court hearing and agreed that the photographer, Rich Lipski, was "overzealous" in pushing the elevator button. However, he denied that Lipski cursed at Kinsey or the family.
Schaefer was arrested June 7, three months after her husband, Richard Schaefer, was found fatally shot on the doorstep of her Prosperity Avenue home. Horan has subpoenaed four of her children, ages 12 to 19, to testify. Three children were at home the evening of the shooting.
The preliminary hearing is now scheduled for next Thursday, though Kinsey said she may appeal yesterday's order. Patricia Schaefer is free on $50,000 bond.