ON A MUGGY NIGHT IN JUNE 2015, a small group of students allegedly lured a classmate into the woods near the Homestead Job Corps Center—a live-in program run by the Department of Labor, where at-risk youth learned vocational skills such as welding and auto repair. There, prosecutors say, the students used a machete to hack 17-year-old Jose Amaya Guardado to death, then burned his belongings and buried his body. Days after Guardado went missing, his brother found his remains, which he recognized by the familiar socks sticking out of the dirt.
A Florida circuit court judge, Dava Tunis, ruled in January that a bond hearing for the defendants be closed, shutting out journalists (as well as the public) from a major pretrial hearing. The Miami Herald and TV station WPLG fought for access, asking the Third District Court of Appeal to review the decision, but on April 26, the appeal court sided with the lower court, citing the news media’s “appetite” for gruesome details.
Media experts see the move as a worrying overreaction.
“Barring the press and public and holding secret pre-trial hearings is a big deal under Florida law and hardly ever done, especially in high-profile criminal trials like this one,” says Samuel Morley, counsel for the Florida Press Association.
Mindy Marques, executive editor of the Miami Herald, hoped that the decision would not set a precedent. “We’re really hoping this ends up being an isolated case,” she tells CJR.
Two months after the murder, Miami-Dade homicide detectives arrested one woman, 18-year-old Desiray Strickland, and three men: Kaheem Arbelo, 20; Jonathan Lucas, 19; and Christian Colon, 19. (A fifth suspect, 23-year-old Joseph Cabrera, was arrested in September 2015. His lawyers claim he was not present at the scene of the crime, but all five defendants were charged with first-degree murder.) Police say the three young men confessed. However, their arrest reports and videotaped statements were sealed, because Florida law exempts from public records “any information revealing the substance of a confession… until such time as the criminal case is finally determined by adjudication, dismissal, or other final disposition.”
Strickland’s arrest report, which was made public, revealed several disturbing details, which were reported by the Miami Herald and other media outlets. According to the arrest report, the group had planned the murder for two weeks; Strickland “complained that she had missed the first series of machete strikes because she had walked away for a few minutes to urinate”; and Arbelo struck Guardado with the machete “until the victim’s face caved in.” After the killing, the report said, Strickland and Arbelo stayed behind to have sex in the woods.
An appeal court judge wrote that the already-disclosed gruesome details ‘have apparently honed the media’s appetite for more.’
DURING THE COURT PROCEEDINGS, defense attorneys asked that “any and all” discovery materials in the case be sealed because media coverage could taint the jury pool and prevent a fair trial. The Miami Herald, along with TV station WPLG, objected in court, arguing that only specific portions of the discovery materials related to confessions should be sealed. The defense teams moved to identify those portions. They also introduced printouts of internet articles showing that the case had been covered by news outlets as far away as Iceland and El Salvador.
The defendants have been held without bond. To keep them in pretrial detention any longer, the state must prove, during what’s known as an “Arthur Hearing,” that there is strong evidence of their guilt—so the discovery materials are likely to come into play. Because the court hadn’t finished determining which elements of discovery should be sealed, defense attorneys asked that portions of the hearing be closed to the press and public.
Case law provides for court proceedings to be closed in certain instances when it’s determined that “closure is necessary to prevent a serious and imminent threat to the administration of justice,” and no other recourse exists besides a change of venue. The Herald and WPLG argued that defendants had not proven this point sufficiently enough to override the public’s constitutional right to witness criminal trials.
In January, a circuit court judge decided that the cases did meet the necessary legal standard, and ordered the entire Arthur hearing closed. The Herald and WSVN then jointly petitioned Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals and asked it to reverse that ruling. Lawyers for the media outlets wrote, “The trial court’s determination that hearings of such magnitude and public importance should be held in secret… is unconstitutional.”
But in an April 26 opinion, a three-judge panel supported the lower court’s decision, noting that the argument merely concerned a pretrial hearing, so the court did not need to “address the higher constitutional rights of access to the courtroom and case-related records applicable to a trial.”
Judge Vance Salter wrote in the appeal court’s opinion that the internet makes possible “the dissemination of inflammatory images and incidents at the speed of light,” and that the already-disclosed gruesome details “have apparently honed the media’s appetite for more.” He noted that one Herald article likened Strickland’s arrest report to Lord of the Flies and described a “bloody scene.” Any further publicity might cause potential jurors to prejudge guilt, the judge reasoned.
‘We’re not driving our journalism decisions based on financial considerations. We’re basing them on what’s the right thing to do for journalism.’
HERALD EDITOR MINDY MARQUES says that her team was “concerned and disappointed in the decision. … We don’t create the facts; we report the facts.” She tells CJR that the judges’ reasoning “vastly overestimated the reach of stories in the local market and modern media landscape. The idea that local coverage is going to taint a jury pool, I think is flawed, quite frankly.” Compared to other Florida cases, like those of George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony, Marques says, this case has received very little attention. “It just never got picked up nationally.”
Herald reporter David Ovalle, who has been covering the case, likewise seemed dismayed at the ruling. “I’d happily trade my Lord of the Flies line… for ability to attend an open court hearing,” he wrote in a tweet linking to the court’s opinion.
Morley, the Florida Press Association lawyer, says there are “less drastic” ways to ensure a fair trial, like using the jury selection process to weed out potential jurors influenced by media reports.
“If a hearing is in fact closed, it must be done in the narrowest way possible,” says Morley. The ruling “seems overly broad because it closes the entire pre-trial hearing, although I believe the defendants only wanted closure where previously sealed materials were to be discussed.” He adds, “It seems a stretch to close the hearing to allow seating of an impartial jury in such a large county as Miami-Dade”—home to 2.6 million people.
However, Scott Sakin, attorney for defendant Strickland, was pleased and says that journalists shouldn’t worry about a ripple effect.
“This case is primarily based on post-arrest statements, which is unusual,” he says. “I’ve been a lawyer for over 30 years, and this is only the second time that I’ve sought this type of relief. It’s certainly no type of trend.”
The defense, he points out, is only asking that the statements be sealed until the trial. “Certainly the only time hearings are closed in general in state court is if it involves a statement of the defendant. If jurors are to hear those now, and later they become inadmissible, the public or potential jurors could be tainted.”
Sakin stresses the importance of the news media, but scoffs at descriptions of the proceedings as secret. “Everyone knows what’s going on. There will be a court reporter. At the appropriate time, a transcript will be made available.”
Marques and her team are deliberating whether to continue their court fight. She says the Herald remains “really aggressive” in fighting for press freedoms and is relatively undaunted by business pressures facing the industry.
“We’re not driving our journalism decisions based on financial considerations,” she says. “We’re basing them on what’s the right thing to do for journalism. We haven’t pulled back. Right now, we sue pretty regularly.”