On October 12th, 2000, Mary Lou Henderson Morris left home to go to work and disappeared.
While unclear what happened between then and her body being discovered later that evening, her car was eventually found, burned, on the side of the road only three miles from her home with her behind the wheel, her wedding ring missing. With her body so badly burned, it was near impossible to determine the cause of death.
Then several days later, Mary McGinnis Morris was also found dead less than thirty miles away from where Mary Lou Henderson Morris had been found. Her body was also found in her car on the side of the road, and her wedding ring was also missing. Her clothes were torn. She had bruises. Police found fibers in her mouth, suggesting she was gagged just prior to her death. And she had a gunshot wound on her head. Had this Mary seen it coming?
In the days prior, she reported to a friend having seen a man at a local store who had given her the creeps. Was he some random, deranged serial killer with a very specific "type"? Or was the killer someone she knew? The police suspected one of Mary #2's coworkers, with whom she'd never really gotten along. But they also suspected Mary #2's husband, who may have lied to the police about his alibi, who refused to take a polygraph test, and who retained a lawyer before even being identified as a suspect. (For anyone who reads this blog frequently, you know that reasons #1 and #2 are really lame reasons for suspecting someone of a crime.) The police never solved this crime, but plenty of suspicions abound.
Given that both crimes involved Marys' wedding rings going missing--a common facet of contract killings; the killer uses the ring to prove the deed has been done--folks wonder if Mary #2's husband had hired a professional to take care of his wife, and the assassin had initially killed the wrong woman.
Strange coincidence? Hired Killer? What do you think?
Under both the US and California Constitutions, defendants are granted the right to a public and speedy trial. This right to a public trial is in place to ensure that defendants receive a fair and open trial, and therefore are not as likely to be subject to abuse by the judge or any other court officer. But the Constitution also guarantees the right of the public to observe and monitor these proceedings as the U.S. Supreme Court has often held that public access to criminal trials is necessary to ensure freedoms of speech and the press. The relevant caselaw, however, also points out that this right of public access is presumptive, not absolute. Courtrooms can be closed to the public if it can be demonstrated that closing the proceedings serves a higher interest and that closure is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.
California Code of Civil Procedure Section 124, which has just been amended in recognition of the challenges faced in ensuring public safety in light of COVID, protects the public's right to access trials and judicial proceedings in these ever-changing times. Courtrooms have been closed to the public. Many hearings have been held remotely, often with the general public unsure how to go about gaining access to the inline proceedings. As such, and as most of us working within judicial system have witnessed firsthand, the pandemic has limited constitutionally-protected public access to court proceedings. In one notable example, the Ojai Valley News sought to continue its coverage of events taking place within the Los Angeles Superior Court without sending reporters to the actual courthouse—as to minimize the risk of exposure for all involved—and requested remote access to proceedings in in the same way the court was providing remote access to parties and witnesses. The Court denied the request. When the newspaper cited the First Amendment and state law making all judicial proceedings presumptively public, the Los Angeles County Court responded that the reporters could have intended in-person proceedings, which satisfied the First Amendment and statutory right to public access.
In light of issues like this faced throughout the State, California Code of Civil Procedure Section 124, was amended as of January 1, 2021, to read that (except as provided in the Family Code or any other relevant provision of law,) the court is prohibited from excluding the public from physically attending court proceedings just because remote access to the proceedings is available, unless doing so is “necessary to restrict or limit physical access to protect the health or safety of the public or court personnel.” Further, if the court is closed, it must “to the extent permitted by law … provide, at a minimum, a public audio stream or telephonic means … to listen…” to the proceedings.
 See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia (1980) 448 U.S. 555; see also Press Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California (1984) 464 U.S. 501, and Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California (1986) 478 U.S. 1.
 Los Angeles Superior Court letter to Jack Lerner, et.al. October 8, 2020.
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