Ohio Court: Judge Erred in Barring Photos of Teen Defendant

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A juvenile judge erred by refusing to allow a journalist to photograph the face of an under-age defendant, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 6-1 decision in State ex rel. Dispatch Printing Co. v. Geer, the high court said Franklin County Common Pleas Juvenile Judge Christopher Geer should not have prohibited a photographer from The Columbus Dispatch from taking a defendant?s picture without first conducting a hearing.

The newspaper sued after it was blocked from photographing 15-year-old Elijah Nichols, who was accused of aggravated murder and robbery in the 2006 death of Terry Ward. The judge made the decision regarding the Feb. 16 hearing because Nichols? parents objected.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, writing for the majority, reaffirmed that court rules require judges to hold a hearing before denying news-media coverage of a public court proceeding. During the hearing, a judge who denies access must find substantial evidence that the media?s presence could harm the defendant or endanger the proceeding?s fairness, that the harm outweighs the public benefit, and that no alternatives to barring the media are available.

Lanzinger was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O?Connor, Terrence O?Donnell and Robert Cupp.

Justice Paul Pfeifer dissented, arguing that his colleagues applied a rule in juvenile court that was intended for adults. He said the Supreme Court?s rules committee, not the justices themselves, should make such determinations.

?In this case, the trial court made a reasonable decision, and its decision should not be overturned,? he wrote.

The court noted that, though the Nichols case is over, the newspaper still would benefit from its decision in future cases.

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