Secret trials coming to a court near you
If I had to choose a theme for this year’s legislative session, it would be “eliminating transparency.” First, the legislature approved a contract allowing state police to withhold internal affairs reports from the public and the press. Now, secret trials are coming to a court near you.
On October 1, I stood outside of the Hartford Superior Court with a sign that read, “No secret trials.” On that same day, a new law disguised as juvenile justice took effect.
Emanating from the capitol that day were clouds of secrecy and deceit looming over Connecticut.
“What does your sign mean?” at least a dozen passersby asked.
“All court proceedings in which a juvenile faces serious felony charges, like murder and rape, are now closed to the public and the records are sealed,” I explained.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” One lady asked.
At first, this might seem like a well-intended law. Indeed, maybe State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, intended it for good: “There’s a presumption of innocence and a level of protection I think juveniles deserve.”
But, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Consider the case of Peter Reilly who, after the Connecticut State Police interrogated and harassed him for 25 hours, falsely confessed to sexually assaulting and murdering his mother, Barbara Gibbons. During his trial, prosecutors withheld key evidence that proved his innocence. Reilly might not have been exonerated had it not been for a public trial.
I’ve been through this injustice system twice now, each case ended in a dismissal, but only after months of battling an adversary who has infinite resources. Even with a good lawyer, in open court, going up against this system we call “justice” is like getting hit by a freight train.
If this could happen in the open, imagine what could happen behind closed doors.
Advocates of this new law argue that if these proceedings are open to the public, the charges will follow juveniles around for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, the public doesn’t have that long of a memory; but the consequences of injustice are life altering.
Secrecy is an invitation for abuse. It exempts judges, prosecutors and attorneys from accountability. No one can examine how justice is done in their own name if justice is done in secret. Where there is no transparency, there is no accountability.
This is a bad law, for the public and juveniles alike, because it single-handedly suppresses our First Amendment right to access court proceedings and court records, and it squashes the safeguards that transparency offers.
Secrecy has created a system in which juveniles are presumed guilty. Joseph Sastre, a Bristol attorney, has dealt with this firsthand. “In juvenile court, the accused is expected to confess,” he said. “At every stage of the proceedings, which have very little formality and seemingly no rules, the accused and his lawyer are discouraged from questioning the accusations or asking for evidence. If I had to choose a venue to actually fight a charge at trial, the juvenile court would be my last resort.”
We have a right to access court proceedings and court records squarely to ensure a fair trial.
But, under this sweeping new law, even the Michael Skakel murder case has been sealed because he was a juvenile at the time.
There’s nothing to see here, say Connecticut lawmakers, move along.
But President John F. Kennedy, Skakel’s cousin, got it right when he said, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant to a free and open society.”
This law must go, for secrecy can only beget abuse.
Though clouds of secrecy and deceit now loom over Connecticut, we must take every opportunity to fight for transparency, because, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis reminded us, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Michael Picard lives in South Windsor.
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