A federal judge in Baltimore yesterday declined to allow open access to a court hearing on Monday for 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, ruling that "enormous" public interest in the Washington area sniper case does not outweigh the suspect's right to be shielded from scrutiny as a juvenile.
The ruling came on a motion by four news organizations, including The Washington Post, that wanted to attend Monday's hearing. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar said he was not convinced that the public's interest in the case warranted an exception to a federal law designed to protect juveniles from public stigma that might hinder attempts to rehabilitate them.
Monday's hearing is to decide whether Malvo should be detained on federal juvenile charges related to the sniper attacks, which killed 10 people and wounded three from Oct. 2 to 22. The proceeding could include "embarrassing" and "delicate" testimony about his mental health, family history and past conduct, Bredar said.
"To release it publicly would potentially stigmatize this child," said Bredar, who deliberated for almost 90 minutes after a two-hour hearing.
The motion by The Post, the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun sought to open all proceedings in Malvo's case to the press and public, just as court proceedings for the other suspect, John Allen Muhammad, 41, are open.
In Malvo's case, the public is not entitled to know when he will appear in court, what happens in any proceedings or what specific charges he faces in connection with the sniper shootings. The clerk's office at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore will not even officially confirm the existence of Malvo's case.
The judge also denied a request to unseal the federal charges that Malvo faces. Even the existence of any sniper-related charges against Malvo remained officially uncertain until yesterday, when the judge and Malvo's attorney alluded to the need for a detention hearing and the fact that Malvo's case is connected to Muhammad's.
Besides the federal charges, the two face murder charges in Maryland and Virginia in connection with the sniper attacks. They also have been charged with unrelated slayings in Montgomery, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La. In many of those state cases, Malvo has been charged as an adult.
According to court papers, the Jamaican-born Malvo is 17 years and eight months old. He did not attend yesterday's hearing. Federal law treats anyone under 18 as a juvenile unless prosecutors seek to have the person tried as an adult.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Tenpas agreed with Malvo's attorneys that personal details revealed in the detention hearing could subject him to potential stigma. Tenpas gave no indication whether federal prosecutors will seek to put Malvo on trial as an adult, as state prosecutors plan to do in Maryland, Virgina, Alabama and Louisiana.
Lawyers for the media companies argued that the "compelling" public interest in Malvo's case, the seriousness of the sniper shootings, Malvo's nearly adult age and the fact that his case already is well known outweighed any need to protect him.
"It's hard to imagine a case where the value of open proceedings is more important," said Dane Butswinkas, a lawyer representing the media organizations. "These events generated fear, held people hostage and killed our citizens."
Butswinkas argued that judges across the country had opened juvenile hearings in cases with less onerous charges involving younger teenagers.
But Malvo's attorney, Joshua Treem, argued that opening the hearing would have a "chilling effect" on testimony that the defense could present at the hearing.
"He's being tried as a juvenile. That's what he is," Treem told the judge. If the news media were allowed to attend Malvo's hearing, Treem said, it would be the subject of "talk shows for days on end."