By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The judge in the trial of the man accused of killing a Blaine County sheriff's deputy will hear arguments next week on whether a an upcoming hearing in the case should be closed to the public.
Lawyers for Lawrence Dean Jackson Jr. in February asked District Judge John McKeon to close a hearing next month in which they will argue that evidence against Jackson should be suppressed because it was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights. The lawyers said that if the hearing is open, media coverage could taint the potential jury pool and jeopardize their client's right to a fair trial.
Jackson, 25, is charged with one count of deliberate homicide in the death of deputy Josh Rutherford and one count of attempted deliberate homicide in the wounding of deputy Loren Janis.
The trial will be held in Missoula this June. McKeon moved Jackson's trial to Missoula County after the prosecution and defense filed a joint motion saying he would not be able to receive a fair trial in Blaine County because of pretrial publicity and other reasons.
The motion to close the suppression hearing and seal its records was opposed by the Havre Daily News. The newspaper hired Helena lawyer John Shontz, who on Wednesday filed a motion asking that the newspaper be allowed participate in any decision to close the suppression hearing. The motion was granted, and McKeon set a hearing for next Friday to hear arguments.
Today Shontz filed a second motion, which asked that he and Havre Daily News management be allowed meet with McKeon before Friday to discuss "reasonable alternatives" to closing the suppression hearing.
Shontz also filed a brief opposing the closure of the supression hearing. The brief argued that a trial judge cannot close a court hearing without first determining that having an open hearing would create a "substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be prejudiced" and also meeting with the media to identify reasonable alternatives to closing the hearing. The brief cited several state Supreme Court rulings.
Jackson's attorneys - Havre lawyer Bob Peterson and Helena lawyer Ed Sheehy - argued in their motion to close the suppression hearing that that only reasonable alternative would be if the media agreed not print any information about the suppression hearing until after the trial starts in June.
If information about the evidence discussed at the suppression hearing were published before June, attorneys may have a difficult time finding impartial jurors during the jury selection process, the motion said. This would "expand the length of the trial as well as create a potential danger of the entire jury pool being contaminated," according to the motion.
The defense lawyers said in the motion they do not believe the media will agree to postpone printing articles about the suppression hearing because of "the vociferous objection" of a Havre Daily News reporter during an omnibus hearing in which Sheehy made an oral motion to close the hearing.
Because it is unlikely that such an agreement will be met, the only option is to close the suppression hearing from the public and seal its records until after the jury is impaneled, the motion said.
In response, assistant attorney general Carlo Canty said the suppression hearing could be closed only if McKeon finds that having an open meeting would create a clear and present danger to the fairness of the trial and that "cannot be avoided by any reasonable alternative means."
Canty's brief recommended that McKeon schedule the hearing to identify any "reasonable alternative means."