The following editorial published on Aug. 18 in the Miami Herald:
Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer made the right decision — the only decision — on Tuesday, when she ruled that court hearings in the case of Nikolas Cruz, the accused Parkland school shooter, will remain open to the public and media.
As painful as the hearings will be for this wounded community, they must remain open. How else will South Floridians — and people the world over — know that justice is being carried out in this case of heinous violence?
Cruz, 22, is facing the death penalty, accused of murdering 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. It remains the state’s worst-ever school shooting.
The ruling against this bad idea to close the hearings came after the Miami Herald and other media outlets, including the New York Times, the Associated Press and TV news groups, including ABC, CBS and NBC, objected to the defense’s request, arguing that holding every future hearing in secret was an overly broad, drastic step. The Broward State Attorney’s Office also objected.
The public defender’s office had asked the judge last week to close the hearings to avoid the possibility of further tainting a future jury pool, also arguing that the publicity sparked by the hearings could harm Cruz’s ability to get a fair trial.
But courts routinely handle sensitive hearings with a narrower approach. As the Broward State Attorney’s Office pointed out, defense lawyers can always ask the judge to review specific evidence in private. Many high-profile trials have been held without incident — and without difficulty finding an impartial jury.
Public needs clarity
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this case in South Florida. When a community has been attacked as badly as we were in Parkland, we need absolute clarity on what happens in court. Closing all pretrial hearings is the opposite of that. We need to be able to examine every step of this process to be certain that it is handled correctly.
Cruz must get a fair trial. The wounded and the families of those killed in the attack deserve justice. But the best way to ensure those things is to allow public scrutiny, and let the media report what happens.
As attorney Deanna Shullman, who represents several TV networks, rightly noted last week in court, transparency in this case is not about “what the defendant did or a right to look at the evidence of his crimes. It is about the public’s right to oversee all the players in this process.”
Judge Scherer was right to agree.