Ensure Justice Is Understood

Judges’ primary allegiance is to guaranteeing justice is done. But they have another duty – ensuring the public has confidence in law enforcement from police agencies up through the court system.

It is that consideration Judge Thomas Lipps should bear in mind in deciding whether the trial of two Steubenville boys accused of rape will be open to the news media.

Attorneys for one of the boys, the Weirton girl they allegedly raped and even Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is handling the prosecution, are asking the trial be closed to both the press and public. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for today.

For different reasons, lawyers representing the boys and their alleged victim do not want information expected to come out during the trial to be made public. Because both the suspects and their alleged victim are juveniles, Lipps probably will be more receptive to those arguments than he might if adult defendants were involved.

Certainly, the privacy of the victim should be safeguarded. The press traditionally does not even report the identities of rape victims – certainly not children. In this case, though some in the news media may know the girl’s identity, we are aware of no attempts to infringe on her privacy or that of her family.

Whether the trial is open or closed, we expect that policy to be continued.

In some cases of crimes committed by juveniles against juveniles, persuasive arguments in favor of closed proceedings can be made.

This one is different, however. Though the case is being handled by DeWine’s office, there have been persistent, often widely publicized claims Steubenville police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department were engaged in some sort of coverup, and were not energetically investigating the case. Despite indications that is not true, the accusations continue and have drawn national and even international attention.

In other words, the impartiality of Ohio’s justice system has been called into question.

A trial not open to the press and public would give the critics more ammunition. They would hint, if not proclaim outright, that keeping secrets about how the case was handled, not concern for the juveniles involved, was the reason for the closed-door proceeding.

Lipps may feel it is not his responsibility to do battle with the rumor mill. Again, however, the public’s perception of how justice is administered is important.

For that reason, Lipps should allow press coverage of the trial, under strict conditions. Chief among them would be not to identify the alleged victim or her family.

Similar situations, though without the enormous, widespread media attention present in this case, have occurred elsewhere. Other judges have found ways to ensure the public is informed, while safeguarding the identities of crime victims and sometimes, juvenile defendants.

Lipps will preside over the trial. His decisions on how to manage the courtroom will not be popular with everyone. His record indicates he will do all in his power to ensure justice is done, however.

Our form of government is based in part on the public’s trust, especially in the justice system. That trust cannot be given fully based only on the assurances of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, however. Particularly in cases such as this, unfounded rumors can be defeated only by facts such as those we in the press report.

Lipps has a tough decision to make. We urge him to allow press coverage of the trial – so the justice done in his courtroom is understood outside it.