The U.S. Justice Department today successfully convinced a federal appeals court to keep secret the record of two material witness hearings from a defendant who argued he was entitled to review the information.
The defendant, Jaron Brice, who was convicted of prostituting underage girls, sought access to sealed testimony by two victims about their association with Brice. At Brice’s sentencing, the trial judge referenced the testimony. Brice is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Brice’s attorneys at the federal public defender’s office in Washington said the First Amendment guarantees access to material witness proceedings. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today upheld a trial judge’s ruling denying access to the information.
The D.C. Circuit judges said no federal appeals court has ever addressed whether the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings extends to material witness hearings. The court said its ruling does not decide that issue.
The appeals court said the trial judge properly cited a “compelling interest” in denying Brice a chance to see the records of the material witness hearings. The trial judge, Rosemary Collyer, said the interest rested in “not exposing intimate medical and other facts about these then-juveniles to all and sundry.”
Redaction of the records, Collyer said, did not provide an adequate alternative to sealing the record. Brice, the judge said, knew the initials of the girls who testified at the hearings and would able to connect sensitive information to the victims.
“Brice also separately contends that the records could have been unsealed only for his counsel and not for the public at large,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh said in the opinion for the court. “But the First Amendment right of access he asserts is a right of access for the public. Under the asserted First Amendment right of access, there is no precedent for disclosing material only to a defense counsel.”