Louisville Judge Olu Stevens criticized for sealing criminal trial, issuing gag order
"I don’t think he has the legal authority to seal it or order people not to talk about it. It’s totally 100 percent improper," said Jon Fleischaker, one of the state’s most experienced media lawyers.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens has sealed the first day of a criminal trial and issued a gag order forbidding prosecutors and defense attorneys from talking about the proceedings - a move deemed "100 percent improper" by a First Amendment attorney.
Sources say Stevens dismissed the jury panel in Charles Evans’ robbery and assault trial Tuesday because there were only a few black members. Afterward, the judge sealed the case and ordered prosecutors and defense attorneys not to talk about what happened.
Dan Goyette, head of the Louisville Public Defender’s office, which is handling Evans’ case, declined to comment.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine, whose office is prosecuting the case, said he could not comment “until we get the gag order set aside.”
An order sealing a video of the trial does not say why Stevens made it “confidential.” The judge sealed the proceedings that took place from 10:56 a.m. to 5:26 p.m., according to the order, signed on Wednesday.
The case being sealed means no one from the public or media can see what happened in court on Tuesday.
It is unclear if the trial will resume on Wednesday. WDRB is talking with its attorney about challenging the judge's order.
Jon Fleischaker, one of the state’s most experienced media lawyers, said he “can’t imagine a legal reason to (seal the case). I don’t think he has the legal authority to seal it or order people not to talk about it. It’s totally 100 percent improper.”
Fleischaker said the public has a right to know what happens inside its courtrooms.
"To seal it is just unheard of," he said.
This is the first criminal trial Stevens has handled in months as Wine and his office have been asking Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton to disqualify Stevens from handling criminal cases because of allegations of bias.
Stevens has criticized Wine and his office repeatedly after a WDRB story in October reporting that Wine had asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether the judge was abusing his power by dismissing a jury because he felt it was lacking enough black people. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the issue.
Last October, Stevens halted Shanklin's drug trial and dismissed the entire jury panel, asking for a new group to be sent up because the potential jurors were "not representative of the community."
The state Judicial Conduct Commission is investigating Stevens, in part, for insinuating on Facebook that Wine is racist and wanted "all-white juries."
Stevens has refused to recuse himself in criminal cases, though Minton has removed him a handful of times.
Minton denied a request to disqualify Stevens from all criminal cases, saying it was way beyond the scope of his responsibility and, if granted, would essentially amount to removing Stevens from the bench.
Minton has harshly criticized Stevens but referred the request to the Judicial Conduct Commission for possible disciplinary action.
It is unknown when the commission will rule on whether Stevens has violated the code of judicial conduct.
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