Fairfield teens accused of murdering their teacher say court hearing should be closed

By: - March 10, 2022 5:13 pm

(Photo by krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images)

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has joined state prosecutors in arguing that court proceedings involving two teenagers accused of killing their high school Spanish teacher should be open to the press and public.

Last November, the body of Fairfield school teacher Nohema Graber was found in the city’s Chautauqua Park. Within days, prosecutors charged Jeremy Everett Goodale, 16, with the forcible felonies of conspiracy and first-degree murder, and Willard Noble Chaiden Miller, 16, with first-degree murder in connection with Graber’s death.

Although the two defendants were 16 years old at the time of Graber’s death, the serious nature of the crime resulted in both being charged as adults in District Court, rather than as juveniles in Juvenile Court.

Under Iowa law, forcible felonies allegedly committed by a child 16 or older are excluded from the jurisdiction of Juvenile Court. The court can, however, transfer jurisdiction to Juvenile Court after a showing of good cause.

In December, Goodale’s and Miller’s lawyers filed motions with the court seeking to move the cases from the District Court criminal docket to Juvenile Court. Separate hearings on the motions to transfer the two cases to Juvenile Court are scheduled for March 24.

Although the requests have yet to be granted, Goodale’s public defender, Allen L. Cook III, and Miller’s attorney, Christine Branstad, have each filed motions with the court that seek to exclude the public from the March 24 hearings on the transfer issue. Both cite potential testimony that pertains to unspecified “confidential information” that, if publicly disclosed, would hinder the defendants’ ability to secure an impartial jury should the cases proceed to trial in April as expected.

The defendants also seek to prohibit expanded media coverage of the court proceedings in the two cases, again citing the potential impact on their right to a fair trial.

“Media coverage is completely prohibited in any juvenile proceeding,” Cook told the court in his motion. “Hearings regarding waiver of jurisdiction over a juvenile for prosecution as an adult are not open to the public.”

Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey T. Moulding has filed a resistance to the efforts to close the proceedings, arguing the cases are now in District Court, not Juvenile Court, and the defendants are legally considered adults and so the argument that open proceedings would create the “the possibility of damage or harm to the child” does not apply.

Moulding also says that while a confidential report generated by a Juvenile Court officer will likely be referenced during testimony at the March 24 hearings, the state does not intend to produce the text of the report in open court.

“Criminal proceedings in the United States are conducted in the open, which provides the public with faith and confidence in the fair outcome of the case,” Moulding said in briefs filed with the court. “This is a fundamental cornerstone of our system of justice. We do not have secret murder proceedings in America.”

Earlier this week, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council joined the state in resisting the motion to close the hearings.

The council is asking the court to “uphold the rights of the public and press to attend criminal court proceedings” and keep the March 24 proceedings open.

In its court filing, the council argues that the “crime was serious enough to be brought in adult court” and so the defendants are not entitled to rely on the Iowa law that allows for the closure of court proceedings in Juvenile Court. Even if that provision of the law applied, the council says, Goodale and Miller would still have to overcome the burden of showing the possibility of damage or harm to them outweighs the public’s interest in having an open hearing.

Hearings on the motions to exclude the press and public from the March 24 hearings on the case-transfer issue are now scheduled for March 21.

Court records indicate Goodale turns 17 on March 29, and Miller turns 17 on Aug. 9.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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