Secret trials for murder, rape, and other atrocious crimes become the law in Connecticut on Oct. 1, an outrage getting less attention than a small tax increase on take-out meals from supermarkets.
The secret trials are being portrayed as “reform” when they’re actually a reversion to the totalitarianism against which this country fought its founding revolution. But secret trials are now politically correct, and since Democrats are fully in control of state government, political correctness rules here.
Legislators have long been striving to restrict public access to court records and proceedings, as with proposals to raise the juvenile age as high as 23, as former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed, qualifying more people for juvenile court, which is closed to the public. But they had not succeeded until this year’s session of the General Assembly, which passed a bill, signed by Governor Lamont, to require secret trials for juveniles accused of murder, rape, and other serious felonies. Previously such serious cases were transferred from juvenile court to adult court, where they were public.
The premise for secrecy in juvenile court has been that people should not have to risk answering throughout their lives for misconduct committed before they grew up. (This premise now is waived for Republican nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.) The premise is less objectionable with minor transgressions but it is ridiculous for felonies in which serious harm has been done — and amid the breakdown of the family, depravity by juveniles is getting worse.
The premise is always ridiculous insofar as it exempts prosecutors, defense lawyers, and courts from accountability for everything they do in juvenile cases. It has allowed juvenile justice to fail constantly without any evaluation and correction.
Anyone who remembers the prosecution of Peter Reilly for the murder of his mother, Barbara Gibbons, in Canaan in 1973 will realize that justice also requires public trials for juveniles for their own sake. For Reilly — 18 when he was charged — was wrongly convicted based on a false confession he gave after long interrogation without a lawyer. Exculpatory evidence was withheld by the prosecution and much more was discovered after Reilly was convicted. Except for his public trial, Reilly probably never would have gained the community support and resources that cleared him.
The same goes for the exoneration by DNA evidence of the five New York City teenagers who falsely confessed to rape and were convicted in the infamous “Central Park Five” case that began in 1989. With a secret trial, they might never have been cleared.
The law requiring secret trials should be repealed urgently, or else a real civil liberties union should be started in the state to seek an injunction against it on the grounds that it contradicts the U.S. Constitution and Connecticut’s own. The latter declares: “All courts shall be open.” It makes no exception for juvenile court.