WINCHESTER — Lorenzo Coles Wheeler was gunned down on a public street, but key witness testimony about the man accused of killing him will occur in private.
Judge Brian M. Madden is barring the public from a portion of a pretrial hearing on Friday in Winchester Circuit Court in the case of homicide suspect Adam Marcus Griffin. Griffin, 35, of the 900 block of North Braddock Street, is accused of shooting the 30-year-old Wheeler in front of 312 N. Kent St. on June 30. He also is accused of trying to have a witness in the case murdered. He faces charges of first-degree murder, solicitation of murder, use of a firearm in a felony and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Madden on Tuesday ruled in favor of a defense motion to allow a witness to privately testify because the testimony would reveal details previously told to a grand jury. "Once we're done with that, it will be open," he said.
Defense attorney Howard Manheimer told Madden that privacy trumped transparency due to the nature of the testimony. "If it were open to the public, it would violate the secrecy of the [grand jury] proceedings," Manheimer said.
In a written motion, Manheimer cited two precedents: Gannett Co. Inc. v. Depasquale, a 1979 New York Supreme Court case, and Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In the Gannett case, justices ruled a reporter could be barred from covering a pretrial hearing in a murder case because coverage could taint the jury pool if the case went to trial. In the Supreme Court ruling, which also involved a murder case, the justices ruled the public's right to attend trials is "implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment."
Derek Aston, senior commonwealth's attorney, didn't object to the motion, but in an April 13 letter to Madden, The Winchester Star argued that closing the hearing violates the First Amendment guarantee of a free press and is a disservice to the public. Madden said The Star has the option of making a formal legal challenge through a lawyer.
Barring the public from a criminal pretrial hearing is legal in Virginia. Megan Rhyne, Virginia Coalition for Open Government executive director, said while it's not commonplace it is done occasionally. Rhyne, who has worked for the coalition since 1998 and been executive director since 2008, said closing courts should be done sparingly because it deprives the public of its right to know. She said transparency must be balanced with protecting witnesses and a defendant's right to a fair trial.
"There is a presumption of openness and it is up to the party asking to close it to overcome that presumption with details that the judge finds compelling and likely to cause the harm that they say it will," she said. "We always hope that proceedings are going to be open. We certainly understand that there sometimes are compelling reasons [for closure] but we hope that those instances will be far and few between."