An Ellis County judge ruled the certification hearing for the 16-year-old Italy High School shooter will be open to the public and media.
Cindy Ermatinger, of the 443rd Judicial District Court in Ellis County, handed down the decision Tuesday afternoon after testimony from the shooter's mother and both legal counsels.
The 16-year-old allegedly opened fire on two students with a handgun Jan. 23 inside the Italy High School cafeteria, shooting a 15-year-old girl several times.
The juvenile’s attorney, Charles Slaton, mentioned Texas Family Code 54.08, section A, which allows the court to be closed under certain circumstances. He argued that there would not be a fair trial with media access. He also said his client’s medical and educational records would be presented at the certification hearing and would infringe his privacy.
Lindy Beaty, on behalf of The State of Texas, argued that, in juvenile cases, education and physiological reports occur in every adjudication deposition in the juvenile court and those are open to the public.
The defense attorney also noted the upcoming certification trial to determine if the shooter will be tried as a juvenile or adult is a probable cause hearing, meaning the court will decide on a preponderance of the evidence. Because of this, any “hearsay” could be reported by any media present. He then stated media presence in the courtroom could affect the testimony of any witnesses who take the stand.
The 15-year-old waived his appearance but his mother, Tracy Morris, was present and took the witness stand.
Morris described the environment of the first detention hearing on Jan. 24 as “hectic” and “stressful." She blamed it on the significant media presence and stated it caused her concern. She added that her son “worries about his mother" being harassed by the media and how the coverage has made him "depressed."
Morris stated the media had contacted her at home and her neighbors, leaving notes during the daytime if no one answers. She also claimed some media members have already "harassed" some witnesses.
Beaty asked how the alleged shooter was receiving information about media coverage, as Morris said the only two people who communicate with him are herself and his attorney. Morris admitted it is her who relays the information to her son on the media coverage.
Morris added that she is concerned “the media will say the wrong thing or hurt his [the shooter's] feelings. What is said will get out there to everyone where we live.”
When questioned by the state, Morris said the witnesses she knows are afraid their words would be recorded or videotaped. The state pointed out that Ellis County courts prohibit video cameras and other audio recording devices in every courtroom.
Beaty mentioned one of the initial points Morris had was harassment by the media. She asked if the media were not allowed in the courtroom if she thought that would keep the press from knocking on her door.
“I would only hope they wouldn’t,” Morris responded.
The state also pointed out that the crowd and media presence Tuesday afternoon was significantly smaller compared to the detention hearing.
The state added none of the stress from the media is from information provided by the court. Morris agreed that the majority of the media attention took place the day of the shooting, the day after and after shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
FAVORING OPEN COURTROOMS
Samantha Vickery, who delivered the closing arguments for The State of Texas, argued that Texas favors open courtrooms and that the Texas Juvenile Code mirrors open courtrooms. The state's attorney also stated that Texas Family Code section 54.08 suggests hearings for those 14 years or older should be open.
Ermatinger pointed out courts are stressful and that they are doing everything to deter media from contact with the juvenile. The judge also stated that open juvenile adjudication trials have occurred since 1995 and transparency is a priority.
The certification hearing to decide whether to try the juvenile as an adult or minor will take place at 9 a.m. June 5.