FAC Fights Secret Hearings in Death Penalty Case

Motion by lawyers for Armando Cruz, charged in rape and murder of 13-year-old Bakersfield girl, seeks to block press and public from all pretrial hearings

The First Amendment Coalition is fighting to ensure hearings in a Bakersfield death penalty case remain open to the press and public.

FAC’s brief, now on file in Kern County Superior Court, urges a judge to reject a request for extraordinary secrecy in the case of Armando Cruz, a Southern California man charged with murder, rape and other felonies in connection with the disappearance of Bakersfield teen Patricia Alatorre, whose charred remains were discovered after she went missing in July. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Cruz has pleaded not guilty.

The request to shut out the press and public comes from lawyers for Cruz, who asked the court to close its doors during all pretrial hearings in the case, including an upcoming preliminary hearing, when evidence supporting the charges will be presented. Cruz’s lawyers argue pretrial publicity threatens Cruz’s right to a fair trial. 

But as FAC’s lawyers explain in a brief opposing the request, “The notion that publicity is inherently prejudicial, and thus justifies closing, is contrary to well-established precedent.”

“There is an extremely high bar for closing courtrooms in criminal proceedings, and for good reason: We don’t do secret prosecutions in this country,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “The First Amendment and California law are clear: Absent extraordinary circumstances not present in the Cruz case, the public has the right to see how their judicial system works.”

Cruz’s lawyers also contend in their motion seeking to close the hearings that the coronavirus pandemic creates unsafe courtroom conditions. However, FAC does not seek unfettered public access but rather physical access consistent with public health guidelines along with remote access, e.g. audio or video streaming, to safely accommodate those who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights.

FAC, a California nonprofit organization that advocates for government transparency and public participation in civic affairs, is standing in for the public and press in the Cruz case. This is not FAC’s first fight for transparency in Kern County Superior Court. In June, FAC and other allied groups filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the court to enforce the First Amendment right of access, a suit that has resulted in improved access. The sheriff’s deputies who provide security at courthouses remain under a federal court order prohibiting them from unilaterally turning away the public. And court officials in a recent court filing indicated audio access was forthcoming.

The next hearing in People v. Cruz is set for October 22 at 9 a.m., when FAC is seeking the opportunity to argue for public access. FAC is represented in this matter by Legal Fellow Sherene Tagharobi, Litigation Director Glen Smith and Executive Director David Snyder, with contributions from legal intern Betty Heeso Kim, student at UC Irvine School of Law. 

Read the court records:

For more information:
David Snyder
Executive Director, First Amendment Coalition
(415) 460-5060