Before closing the courtroom, McCormick ruled that protecting the interests of the victims and the suspects outweighed access. “I understand that people want to know what happens in this case,” she said Thursday, adding, “At the end of the day, my charge is to help the rehabilitation of these children.”
The Washington Post asked in writing before the hearings to stay during the proceedings.
A reporter for The Post also went to the courtroom at the start of each teen’s hearing, which opened with statements about how the teens had earlier pleaded in the case. Before the bulk of the hearings got underway — during which the specific plea deals and possible punishments were expected to be discussed — defense attorneys asked that the judge clear the courtroom of anyone not directly connected to the case.
The events in a junior varsity football locker room on Oct. 31, 2018, rocked the Damascus community, led to several personnel changes at the school and triggered an ongoing investigation into the school officials’ responses after a parent told a coach about his son’s account.
Maryland court rules allow a judge to use discretion to exclude the public from proceedings involving juveniles who have not been charged as adults. Records in juvenile court are sealed.
The four teens were charged in November as adults — with public arrest documents and open hearings — before defense attorneys successfully argued to have their cases returned to the juvenile system, which is geared more toward counseling, education and treatment rather than punishment. The defendants were all 15 years old at the time of the attacks.
Both boys departed the hearings via the main courtroom entrance with family members and their attorneys, an indication they were sentenced to probation and perhaps electronic monitoring, but not to a juvenile detention facility.
The case stemmed from the locker room attacks in which, according to earlier hearings and court records, one group of Damascus junior varsity team members were suiting up for their last practice of the season in the freshman area of the locker room when a second group came in, turned off the lights and guarded the door. One by one, four boys were wrestled to the floor and assaulted, according to the earlier hearings and court records.
On June 6, one of the teens pleaded to one count of second-degree rape and three counts of attempted second-degree rape, according to three people familiar his plea who spoke about it at the time.
In asking the judge to keep the disposition hearings open, The Post wrote that there was public interest in the outcomes.
Maryland court rules hold a general presumption of public access to such hearings. “In a case in which a child is alleged to have committed a delinquent act that would be a felony if committed by an adult, the court shall conduct in open court any hearing or other proceeding at which the child has a right to appear,” The Post wrote in its letter and referred to when McCormick invited a reporter to speak about the request.
That presumption holds a broad exception, however, allowing a judge to close hearings to the general public for “good cause shown.”
In asking for the hearings to be closed, defense attorneys Jason Downs and David Felsen cited, among other reasons, sensitive and potentially confidential information that would be said about the teenage suspects and victims.
On Thursday, Felsen asked McCormick to issue an order forbidding anyone in the courtroom from discussing the proceedings afterward. “We basically are concerned about confidential information,” Felsen said.
Prosecutors agreed with that request, as did McCormick.