Why did a Circuit Court judge lock the public out of a hearing involving a Newport News police officer?
That’s a good question, one with insufficient answers — and that should worry anyone concerned about judicial transparency and police accountability.
Judge Margaret Poles Spencer in April granted a motion by prosecutors to close a hearing on whether to revoke bond for Sgt. Albin Trevor Pearson, who is charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in the Dec. 27, 2019, killing of Henry K. Berry III.
Pearson was arrested in November and was granted bond in the case. His trial is scheduled to begin in October. The April hearing came at the request of special prosecutors from Suffolk assigned to the case, who filed a sealed motion in early March asking that Pearson be jailed pending trial.
That would seem to be an important development in a case involving serious accusations against a police officer. But more importantly, it’s the sort of judicial proceeding that, were it to involve most other defendants, would be open to the press and public.
After all, the revocation of bond is an exercise in state power that would limit an individual’s freedom. It’s the sort of thing that should play out in full view of the public barring extraordinary circumstances.
Such circumstances could be why prosecutors requested Pearson’s bond be revoked. But with the motion sealed and reporters prohibited from the hearing, the public does not know.
These proceedings came at a difficult time, due to the pandemic and restrictions associated with COVID-19. The judicial system has been deeply affected. Citizens called to be jurors haven’t shown up, leaving a shallower pool of potentials to serve at trials.
So one can sympathize with the plight of prosecutors in this case, who told the judge they were “concerned about Mr. Pearson’s access to a fair trial” and that they didn’t want the process “unnecessarily tainted by pretrial publicity.”
But those concerns are better addressed through pre-trial screening of potential jurors, as in every other serious and publicized case that comes into the courtroom. There’s no need to cut off access to hearings, even ostensibly to protect Pearson’s rights under the Constitution.
In fact, Pearson’s attorney, Timothy Clancy, told the Daily Press he agreed with closing the bond hearing, but “didn’t have any legal authority” to oppose the presumption of open hearings.
The Constitution includes some other language pertinent to the case, including the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial — to deter secret tribunals — and the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom. Openness and transparency should be the hallmark of the judiciary, and the public should have access to the proceedings.
Further, central to the debate about the role of law enforcement in our communities is the notion held by some that police operate under a different set of rules than do citizens — that they are not held accountable for criminal mistakes and that the legal system unfairly shields them from public scrutiny.
The decision to close this hearing does nothing to dispel those assumptions. And that certainly does police, or the accused, no favors.
Lawyers for Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot petitioned for the hearing to be open, which was denied. They also asked that the bond revocation request be unsealed, which the judge also denied. Appeals are in the works.
The hearing proceeded behind closed doors, and the judge ruled that Pearson would remain free. Was that the right decision? We cannot know without the facts.
But we do worry about any person accused of serious crimes and decisions about that individual’s freedom taking place away from public view.
Pearson has a right to a fair trial and the system should do everything reasonable to provide it. But the public also has a right to monitor the proceedings, and those rights shouldn’t be placed in opposition to one another — not when so serious a matter as a person’s freedom is on the docket.