Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sealing of Los Angeles Courtroom in Wrongful Death Suit of Jewish Defense League Member Has First Amendment Implications

A Los Angeles Federal Judge closed a two-day trial this week in a highly unusual and controversial order. The trial is a civil wrongful death action involving the 2005 prison killing of Jewish Defense League activist Earl Krugel. Earl Krugel was imprisoned in the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Phoenix for plotting the bombing of a Culver City mosque and an Arab American politician's office. Three days after Krugel's arrival, David Frank Jennings, a tattooed racist housed in the general population of the medium-security facility, used a paving stone from the prison recreation yard to bludgeon Krugel to death with five blows to the head. Thirty-five years was added to Jennings sentence for the murder. Krugel's widow brought a wrongful death suit. Prison officials requested the closure claiming sensitive information related to gangs and security in inmate management and prison security. Previously, the United States Supreme Court has rejected prison security as a reason to close a trial in a case involving racial segregation in California prisons. An excerpt from the article (full article here):
Constitutional scholars and press-freedom advocates deemed the broad secrecy accorded the trial by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson perplexing -- and a likely violation of the 1st Amendment.
Wilson issued a protective order covering U.S. Bureau of Prisons policies and practices in evaluating inmates for gang affiliation and potential to harm others. In deference to the order, Wilson banished media and spectators from the courtroom Tuesday and Wednesday, from the swearing in of the first witness through closing arguments.His ruling late Thursday was filed under seal.
"This is outrageous. This is not Russia, North Korea or Iran. This is the United States," said Benjamin Schonbrun, attorney for Krugel's widow, Lola, who was seeking damages for the wrongful death of her husband at the hands of a known white supremacist.

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