Monday, April 28, 2008

5404: Judging R. Kelly.

From The Chicago Sun-Times…

Judge in R. Kelly trial must balance interests

The Cook County judge overseeing the R. Kelly criminal case is worried that the upcoming trial will turn into a three-ring circus.

Given Kelly’s star power, the salacious nature of the allegations against him and the likelihood that more than 300 journalists will be on hand, we see the problem.

But that’s no reason for Judge Vincent Gaughan to hold sessions in secret, as he has done for months.

In an emergency petition, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press have asked the judge to lift the shroud of secrecy.

At first blush, that petition might look like whining by three big media companies upset that they can’t get the dirt on the biggest celebrity case of the summer. But critical issues of law and the First Amendment are at stake.

Kelly is accused of a serious crime, child pornography, for allegedly taping himself having sex with a girl who was no more than 13 or 14. It matters that he get a fair trial -- and public scrutiny has a way of keeping trials fair.

It also matters that the public’s right to observe be respected, if only so they can see for themselves whether a multimillionaire with the best lawyers in town gets the same treatment as an average Joe.

Important matters in criminal cases often are resolved during the pretrial maneuverings of prosecutors and defense attorneys. Cases can be won or lost before a jury is ever picked.

Judge Gaughan has slammed the door on those hearings, sealed documents and gagged the lawyers.

We’d love to tell you specifically what the judge is worried about, but that’s secret, too.

In other such high-profile cases, judges have managed to keep the proceedings fair but open by taking common-sense precautions.

If Judge Gaughan is worried that revealing certain details of the case before the trial could bias potential jurors against Kelly, then he must quiz them carefully during jury selection. It’s always surprising how little many potential jurors know about even the most high-profile cases.

If the judge is concerned about protecting the privacy of the alleged victim or about the prejudicial impact of some detail in a court record, he can black out the offending words before releasing the rest of the document.

Judge Gaughan must do more to balance competing interests -- a fair trial vs. the public’s right to know. That’s his job.

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