Criminal cases should be open to the public, including members of the news media, unless there is clear and compelling evidence that it would violate the constitutional rights of the accused.
Yet, in the case involving a man charged with killing a Newport News police officer, those petitioning to bar reporters from the court appear to be doing so as a matter of convenience, not of necessity.
That should alarm every citizen of Virginia who believes that justice should be administered in public — to protect the rights of the accused and make certain that judicial proceedings receive the scrutiny needed to ensure a fair and impartial application of the law.
The case in question is that of Vernon E. Green II, who is charged in the January 2020 killing of Officer Katherine M. “Katie” Thyne.
According to reporting by the Daily Press, Thyne approached Green’s car to question him about smoking marijuana in a Newport News parking lot. Green tried to drive away, trapping Thyne in his vehicle before crashing into a street sign and tree about 400 yards away.
A city police officer hadn’t died in the line of duty for 25 years, and Thyne’s loss was a tragedy the entire Peninsula region mourned. There is tremendous public interest in the trial and, as a result, a need by all involved to conduct these proceedings in full view of the community.
So it is surprising that last month the Newport News Public Defender’s Office and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office asked Chief Circuit Court Judge Christopher Papile to prohibit reporters from covering a pre-trial hearing about evidence.
Their motion argued that “permitting the media to report on the proceedings would be prejudicial to Green and may result in further public hostility toward Green” and expressed worry that reporting about the case could prejudice the jury.
Curiously, the joint motion proposes to still allow the public to attend, perhaps assuming that everyone with an interest in the case is eager to cram into a courtroom during a pandemic or that the city could find a venue large enough to accommodate them.
Lawyers representing The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press filed a countermotion arguing that prohibiting news coverage in the courtroom would violate the First Amendment, the Virginia Constitution and the common law of Virginia.
Papile was expected to make a ruling on Sept. 3 but postponed his decision after granting a request by Newport News Public Defender Edward Webb to be removed as Green’s lawyer. Papile is now expected to rule on Nov. 12.
Obviously the court’s duty is to the law. If there is clear and compelling evidence that Green wouldn’t receive a fair trial with reporters in the courtroom, a judge is duty-bound to consider the remedies available.
Prohibiting the news media should be the option of last resort. It is an extreme action, one that would violate the First Amendment, raise questions about the impartial application of the law and call the proceedings into question.
After all, Green is charged with killing of an officer of the state. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a public trial for circumstances such as these, when it might be tempting for the state to swiftly convict and harshly punish the accused in secret.
This is the second time in a matter of months that a question of public access came before a Hampton Roads court. In April, Judge Margaret Poles Spencer granted a motion by prosecutors to close a hearing on whether to revoke bond for Sgt. Albin Trevor Pearson, a Newport News officer who was charged with second-degree murder.
That gave credence to the notion that law enforcement enjoys special protection when accused of criminal mischief. The Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot have appealed Spencer’s decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.
At a time when public confidence in the justice system is imperiled, the courts need to stand up for transparency. Judge Papile can do so by rejecting the overreach this motion represents.