Secret Trials in Washington DC

18% of DC criminal trials are conducted in total secrecy.

“During the past five years, 469 cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., have been prosecuted and tried in complete secrecy, with no public knowledge even of the cases’ existence and no way for the public to challenge the secrecy,” write Kirsten B. Mitchell and Susan Burgess, reporters with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Burgess and Mitchell found the cases by “searching the court’s entire civil and criminal docket for the past five years. During the five-year period ending Dec. 30, an average of 18 percent of nearly 3,000 criminal cases were not docketed in Washington’s U.S. District Court — one of 94 federal courts nationwide. Undocketed civil cases were so few — 65 of more than 12,000 — as to be statistically insignificant.”

The Burgess/Mitchell article said that “most off-the-docket criminal cases were kept off the public docket after prosecutors asked judges to seal the cases, according to those who handle such cases.

“While Justice Department guidelines recognize a strong presumption against closing criminal proceedings and outline limited reasons allowing for closure, they don’t specifically address nonpublic docketing.

“Both the department’s arguments for and the judge’s approval of sealing an undocketed case are shielded from public view, making it impossible to know whether the guidelines are followed. What’s more, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington does not monitor how many requests it makes to seal cases or how many requests are approved.

(Alex Kingsbury at Nieman Watchdog)

One more step down the road.

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5 Responses to Secret Trials in Washington DC

  1. bricklayer says:

    This article, written by Mitchell and Burgess (the authors of the very study cited by the article that got you so riled up) gives a much fairer portrayal of what’s really going on:

    I am utterly baffled how you can so one-sidedly portray the issue. The authors of the study clearly recognize the pros and cons of leaving witnesses hung out to dry. The article you cited itself presents strong arguments for instances where sealing is appropriate:

    ““The guidelines say that proceedings may be closed if failure to close them will produce ‘a substantial likelihood and imminent danger to the safety of parties, witnesses, or other persons.’”

    Federal criminal prosecutions often involve very nasty characters…big time drug dealers, mobsters, etc.. The Internet and other tools make it much easier for compatriots to indimidate and eliminate witnesses. Also more and more federal cases involving child pornogrophy and thus child victims. In state prosecutions, sealed cases are often involve gangs…and local police have little or no resources available to protect witnesses.

    Should proper reviews and checks be in place? Of course. Are they in place? Maybe not yet, so the issue should be discussed. But the discussion should be fair.

    I’d be interested in hearing what your collegue Bascuas has to say on this issue.

  2. Michael says:

    Secret criminal trials are anathema to democracy on multiple levels. That stuff about justice being seen to be done is not mere guff. I can (just barely) accept the idea that in rare cases there may cause to close a trial.

    When it gets up to nearly 1 in 5, and no one is keeping track, the danger is that closing a trial becomes too routine. They get closed too often instead of exceptionally. How many steps down the slippery slope until next thing you know something gets closed for reasons other than physical danger to witnesses from defendant and friends (think, national security as defined broadly by the hate-figure of your choice)?

  3. bricklayer says:

    First of all, 99.999% of criminal cases never have an audience anyway.

    But that much aside, we obviously have different views of how widespread the witness intimidation problem is, or how society should respond to it. If it were rare, I’d agree with you almost 100%. I just don’t think you realize how rampant the problem is, and how mythical the notion of “witness protection” is.

    Or you know and believe that this is simply a price worth paying for open trials, and if that is the case then there’s simply no point in discussion.

  4. LACJ says:

    Bricklayer, does your link really work? Doesn’t for me.

    Thanks for spuriously arguing that the 1/5 of criminal cases in that court that are secret are due to witness protection issues. Should have read the article.


    “The investigation found, that “many, if not all, of the civil off-the-docket cases are believed to be whistle-blower suits filed under the federal False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to sue on behalf of the U.S. government charging fraud by government contractors and other entities receiving or using government money.”

    Nice move to invoke gangs, drug dealers, the mafia…if you were right (which you aren’t) those prosecutors fear backlash from individuals from within government and government contractors. Not that I would cross Halliburton lightly.

    The implication that it may be this particular type of case to be surpressed I will leave to others; it should be fairly obvious to anyone with a bit of sense.


  5. bricklayer says:

    Curiously, Michael’s disemvoweller seems broken…I guess different standards of conduct apply where one agrees with the liberal party line (see his “Our Brownshirts Wear White T-Shirts” post above). On the other hand, if your last line was intended as a signature rather than as insult to me, you have indeed chosen an appropriate nickname for yourself.

    The original article to which I linked (not the inaccurate summary relied on by Michael) clearly discusses the gang and organized crime element. Further, your quote is clearly talking about CIVIL cases, which implicates a far lessor need for transparency and was therefore not even discussed in the article. Indeed, prosecutors (agents of the State) are not even involved in these CIVIL matters (as you erroneously stated), rather the plaintiffs are private individuals like you or me. Sealing CIVIL matters is quite common, for example it is my understanding that divorce decrees are sealed automatically in some states, and parties seal settlements all the time.

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