Army reverses court secrecy in murder hearing
After objections from news organizations, an officer OKs access to a murder hearing
The Army has reversed a decision to bar the public and the news media from a preliminary hearing today for a Schofield Barracks soldier who faces the possibility of the death penalty for allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend last year.
Stefanie Gardin, 25th Infantry Division spokesman, said Maj. Suzanne Mitchem, who's presiding over the Article 32 hearing for Spc. Jeffery White, has agreed to make it public after the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and a journalists group challenged her decision to close the courtroom.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Military Reporters and Editors group said the Army was barred from issuing a blanket closure of an entire Article 32 hearing -- the military's equivalent to a preliminary hearing.
White, 21, a truck driver, is charged with the premeditated murder of his ex-girlfriend, Spc. Felicia Duke, 22, on Oct. 8.
Earlier this week, Mitchem granted a request from White's military attorney, Maj. John Hyatt, to close the Article 32 hearing.
The hearing is scheduled to begin this morning at a Wheeler Army Airfield courthouse. Mitchem will hear evidence in the case and make a recommendation to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon whether White will face a court-martial.
Gardin has said Mitchem's decision was "in the interests of justice and protection of the accused's rights to a fair trial ... "
However, Sig Christenson, military reporter with the San Antonio Express-News and president of Military Reporters and Editors, yesterday wrote to Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who heads the Army public affairs program in the Pentagon, saying that "press access to U.S. courts, including military courts, is protected constitutionally and is essential to public confidence in government.
"For these reasons, the Manual for Courts-Martial United States recognizes that openness of court-martial proceedings is the default rule."
Frank Bridgewater, editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, also protested the Army's decision to bar the public and media from the criminal proceedings.
Bridgewater -- in a letter to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division -- cited past court cases. Bridgewater pointed to a 1997 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces decision that "made it very clear that media organizations such as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin have a First Amendment right to attend an Article 32 hearing unless there are compelling reasons that require the hearing to be closed.
"The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces went on to say that even if compelling reasons can be identified, the closure must be narrowly tailored so that no more of the Article 32 hearing is closed than necessary."
Both news organizations argued that investigating officers can only close portions of an Article 32 hearing if testimony is about classified materials or from sexual assault victims.
Initially, White had been indicted on second-degree murder charges by an Oahu grand jury in October for killing LaDuke because of a dispute over child support payments. White is the father of LaDuke's son, who was 20 months old at the time of the slaying.
Last November, city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle turned the case to the military.