Transparency in court hearings highlighted by Spotlight

By AMANDA KARP
On February 25, 2019

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Lawmakers from Massachusetts have sponsored two bills that promote transparency in court proceedings and clerk magistrate hearings. 

Bills SD.866 and HD.2790 have been filed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives are being pushed forward due to a demand for transparency in the handing out of criminal charges. 

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published an article surrounding the secret courts and the decisions that were made on Sept. 30, 2018. 

Their investigation followed Leneeth Suazo, who at the time in 2014 was four months pregnant and in an abusive relationship. She had been kicked out of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment and was staying in an apartment complex when there was a knock at her door.

It was her ex-boyfriend, Jim Phane, and in fearing that he would attack her again, Suazo began recording on her phone. He wound up grabbing her jaw, shoving her and elbowing her in the stomach before he left.

Suazo was initially granted a restraining order, and the police sought felony assault and battery charges against Phane. 

But at the closed-door hearing, even though there was enough evidence to convict him, assistant clerk magistrate Helen White told Phane that if he avoided trouble for a few months, he would not have to go to a public court and the charges would essentially be dropped.

Suazo was not able to obtain the justice she deserved, and the investigation further revealed that the decisions the clerks make are not backed with adequate experience. They wield a great deal of power without necessary knowledge.

“About 40 percent of clerks and their assistants, including Helen White, lack law degrees, one clerk magistrate did not go to college at all, and another has only an associate degree,” the article, written by Jenn Abelson, Nicole Dungca and Todd Wallack, stated.

Another victim of these secret courts was Lorre Mitchell, who was only 16 when she was on her way to a bus stop and was run over in a crosswalk. 

The driver had attempted to swerve but still crashed into her and was cited by police for negligent operation of a motor vehicle. The clerk handling her case did not issue the charge. 

It wasn’t until the Norfolk District Attorney’s Office disagreed with the ruling and asked a judge to overturn it that Mitchell found justice. 

“I still don’t believe I made a wrong decision, but if a judge and jury say I’m wrong, I guess I’m wrong,” the clerk, Robert Moscow, stated. He is no longer a clerk, but still presides over show cause hearings.

Cases like these should be more open the public. There is no reason for cases to be shrouded in secrecy and for victims to face the possibility that their legitimate claims will be swept under a rug by these clerks.

Not only should these hearings be made more public, but it should be ensured that clerks have the proper certification and experience necessary to be handing out such rulings. If they do not possess the education needed for such life altering decisions, they should not have that job.

Courts cannot and should not operate this way because they are denying justice to people who deserve to have not only that, but closure from a tumultuous time in their life.

 

akarp@ramapo.edu

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