All Iowa criminal trials should be open to public

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 15, 2016:

Imagine a court system in which people can plead not guilty to crime and then have their case decided by a judge based on a review of evidence that by law must be kept secret.

That could very well happen in the sexual exploitation trial of Mary Beth Haglin, a 24-year-old substitute teacher who has acknowledged having a months-long affair with a 17-year-old student, and discussed the particulars of that relationship on “Inside Edition” and “Dr. Phil.”

In an apparent deal with Haglin, Linn County prosecutors have agreed to have her guilt or innocence determined not during a public trial, but through a “stipulated trial” in which a judge will review the prosecution’s written “minutes of testimony,” a document that summarizes the state’s evidence, and then issue a verdict.

It’s easy to see why Haglin and the prosecutors might prefer a stipulated trial. It enables Haglin to preserve certain avenues of appeal because there is no guilty plea, and the prosecution can avoid the time and expense of a public trial.

Here’s the problem: In Iowa, the minutes of testimony — i.e., the evidence that’s to be weighed by the judge — is, by state law, a confidential document that’s accessible only to the prosecution, the defense and the judge.

Historically, that has created issues in Iowa counties where prosecutors deliberately place the most basic, elemental facts of what transpired — the who, what, when, where and how of a crime — only in the sealed minutes of testimony. It’s a tactic that makes it impossible for the press and the public to see why a person has been charged with a crime or whether a prosecutor’s decision to pursue a plea bargain is actually justified.

But hiding basic information in a sealed document becomes a much larger problem when confidential records are used not only by the prosecution to justify a criminal charge, but by a judge to determine guilt.

And that’s what happens when a “stipulated trial” takes place. Despite the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of open criminal trials — a right that belongs to the public and the press, and which cannot be waived by a defendant — a stipulated trial in Iowa involves the private consideration of evidence that is sealed not just from the press, but from the public, which is a group that includes crime victims.

No, it’s not as if the courtroom doors are being locked. It’s worse than that: There is no courtroom trial at all. A stipulated trial might involve a judge reading the minutes of testimony in his or her pajamas at home, if not in chambers, even as the evidence that’s being considered remains sealed from public view.

In 1948, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black articulated the importance of open criminal trials when he argued they provide a public demonstration of fairness; they curb misconduct on the part of judges and attorneys; they lessen the likelihood of perjury by witnesses; and they discourage decisions based on bias or prejudice.

Open criminal trials have “always been recognized as a safeguard against any attempt to employ our courts as instruments of persecution,” Black wrote. “The knowledge that every criminal trial is subject to contemporaneous review in the forum of public opinion is an effective restraint on possible abuse of judicial power.”

In the Haglin case, Sixth Judicial District Judge Kevin McKeever has given the Cedar Rapids Gazette a general description of what is contained in the minutes of testimony: a Child Protection Center interview with the victim, and Haglin’s interview with police. McKeever said he intends to issue his ruling in the case soon and will announce the verdict, which will include his factual findings, in open court.

McKeever told the Des Moines Register a judge can consider more than just the confidential minutes of testimony in a stipulated trial, but he acknowledged that this other evidence might also be kept secret.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden says he’s not sure anyone other than a defendant has a constitutional right to argue that a criminal trial be open. “I think the right to open trials is a right afforded to the defendant,” he said. “It’s a personal right, a constitutional right of the defendant, who can then waive that right.”

McKeever at least recognizes the public’s First Amendment right to open court proceedings, but says his primary concern is with the rights of the defendant. In that regard, both the prosecutor and the judge seem to have little regard for the value of public oversight and accountability.

“We really need to protect everyone’s constitutional rights, but not at the expense of the defendant’s rights,” McKeever says. “Let’s face it, after the reporters go home, after the public goes home, if the defendant is convicted, they are the ones who have to possibly face the consequences, not the public and not the press. I really don’t think it’s appropriate for others to interfere.”

The trouble is, no one’s access to a fair trial can be assured in a court system that confuses oversight with interference. A system that allows for private criminal “trials,” with the evidence sealed from public view, is a system in need of reform.