New Hampshire Newspapers Fight Closed Hearing for Rapist

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Two newspapers are challenging a judge’s decision to close a hearing for a rapist, the first proceeding under a new law allowing the state to continue holding violent sexual offenders after they complete their criminal sentences.

On Tuesday, Merrimack Superior Judge Philip Mangones closed a preliminary hearing for rapist William Decato to the media and the public, at the request of Decato’s public defenders and county prosecutors.

The judge ruled the hearing on whether Decato should be held for an evaluation was a private civil matter and not a criminal case.

The Concord Monitor and the New Hampshire Union Leader are protesting. Under the state constitution and state Supreme Court rulings, all court hearings are open to the public unless there is an overriding reason for closing them, such as the law closing juvenile delinquency proceedings so children get a chance at rehabilitation, lawyers for the newspapers said.

The new sexual offenders law, which allows civil commitments of up to five years for sexual predators who remain dangerous, says certain medical and mental health records may be sealed. But the Legislature did not say the hearings should be closed altogether, said William Chapman, the Monitor’s lawyer.

“The Legislature didn’t say that these proceedings are closed. They know how to say it when they want to,” said William Chapman, a lawyer for the Monitor.

Lawyer Greg Sullivan said the Union Leader also does not believe there is a “valid, demonstrated basis for closure” in Decato’s case.

Associate Attorney General Ann Rice agreed that the law does not call for closed hearings.

Decato, 50, was sentenced in 1999 to eight years in prison for rape and attempted rape of two women in Pembroke. Just before his planned release last week, Merrimack County prosecutors filed an emergency petition alleging he is still sexually violent and asking that he be held long enough for mental health experts to determine whether he is dangerous.

Mangones ruled in their favor Wednesday, but released no details. A state mental health team has until Monday to evaluate Decato and make a recommendation. If they believe his is likely to re-offend, prosecutors can seek a trial on the issue, and Decato could be held for up to five years for treatment.

Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, is also protesting the closure, saying the public should be able to monitor and evaluate the new proceedings.

“The whole idea of an individual completing his or her sentence, and then being subjected to additional confinement, is very troubling,” she said. “If they are closed hearings, that is more troubling still.”

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