Judge: Closure of Morris hearing was error

Published 10:11 pm Monday, May 15, 2017

A Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge erred last December when he closed a hearing involving criminal charges against Delegate Richard Morris to members of the media but not to the public, a Circuit Court judge ruled Monday.

“I find, with all due respect to Judge (Robert) Brewbaker, that he was wrong procedurally but not substantively,” substitute Judge Louis Lerner, a retired judge from Hampton, said.

Attorney R. Johan Conrod Jr., of Kaufman and Canoles, argued in court that Brewbaker failed to file a written finding a day in advance, as required by the Supreme Court when closing a courtroom to the public. In fact, a written finding wasn’t filed at all.

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“The media got notice of the closure of this hearing when they showed up to attend the hearing,” Conrod said in court Monday.

Morris, who sits on the Courts of Justice committee in the House of Delegates, was on trial in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Dec. 15 on 14 counts of various crimes stemming from alleged abuse of his wife and an adolescent child in the home. Thirteen of the 14 counts were dismissed or not prosecuted during the hearing. Morris later issued a press release referencing the transcript of the case.

The juvenile giving testimony was cited by both the commonwealth and defense attorney as their primary reasoning for asking for closure of the December hearing.

In the order that barred reporters from the hearing, Brewbaker referenced a section of Virginia law that refers only to courtroom photography and television broadcasting from the courtroom, not to reporters merely sitting in the courtroom.

Conrod argued Monday that there were less restrictive means of keeping the media from reporting the juvenile’s name or testimony, such as perhaps allowing them in for the portions that did not feature the child’s testimony.

“The media was not allowed in for any of it,” said Conrod, who represented the Virginian-Pilot, Daily Press and Smithfield Times. “They were totally barred from the entire hearing. No one ever gave a reason why defendant Morris would not have had a fair trial if it had been open to the media. No part of the closure complied with any of the procedural requirements the Supreme Court has put in place.”

In arguing for the transcript to be released, Conrod said it will help put Morris’ press release, which Conrod said was “cherry-picked to allow him to be cast in the best possible light,” into context.

“If there’s one thing that can, at this late date, sort of make up for the closure of the hearing, it’s the release of the transcript,” Conrod said.

Lerner also ruled that the transcript should be released. He did not make a ruling on whether Morris’ criminal trial should be open to the public, saying he did not believe he had jurisdiction over whom another judge allows into his courtroom.

However, Conrod said he did not believe any efforts to close the courtroom will be made now that the case has moved into Circuit Court.

Following the December hearing, Morris was indicted on two counts, including the one that moved forward from the lower court. He was set for a jury trial on those charges this week, but it has now been continued to Aug. 23-24.

Timothy Perry, a Hampton prosecutor who has been appointed to try the case in Suffolk due to conflicts of interest, said he believes having an open courtroom at this stage is critical.

“The public deserves to know what’s going on in this case,” he said.