Army overstepped in closing hearing
The Army has reversed a decision to close a criminal proceeding to the public.
THE nation's highest military court recognizes that criminal proceedings must be open to the public unless testimony involves classified materials or privacy of sexual assault victims. Neither was the case in a hearing last week involving a Schofield Barracks soldier
accused of killing his ex-girlfriend.
The Army's quick reversal of a decision to conduct closed proceedings acknowledges the constitutional protection that is fundamental to the community's confidence in government and the armed forces.
However, that it required the Star-Bulletin and an organization of journalists to challenge the secrecy is disturbing, particularly because the soldier faces the possibility of the death penalty in a state that disallows the punishment.
The hearing was to determine whether Spc. Jeffery White will face a court martial in the death of Spc. Felicia LaDuke whose body was found at a North Shore beach last October.
As the Star-Bulletin's Gregg K. Kakesako reported, Maj. Suzanne Mitchem, presiding over the Article 32 hearing, granted a request from White's attorney to bar the public and news organizations "in the interest of justice and protection of the accused rights to a fair trial."
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has ruled that closings are limited to narrow areas of testimony and that blanket closings are forbidden.
The Military Reporters and Editors group joined this newspaper in contesting Mitchem's decision to the Pentagon and to the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division. The order for closing was revoked.
LaDuke, who had been strangled, was seeking child support for a son she had with White, who is married to another woman. Witnesses told police they heard White say he was going to kill LaDuke and that he used her car to drive over her body to make sure she was dead.
If convicted, a military court could sentence White to death, a penalty abolished in Hawaii prior to statehood. In view of local sentiment, White's case is of keen interest to the public and should be reported fully.
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