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Court: Closing sex trial to minors OK (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Milwaukee judge lawfully closed a sexual assault trial to children after deciding they shouldn’t be exposed to graphic testimony, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Ronald Carpenter’s case raises questions about when judges can restrict access to criminal trials and who they can keep out of court. Carpenter’s attorney, Paul Bonneson, maintains Carpenter was denied his right to a public trial and said he would ask the Supreme Court to take the case, saying the state needs a broader ruling because the issue will keep coming up in sensitive trials ranging from sexual assaults to homicides.

“It’s going to happen again,” Bonneson said. “There are other cases with other unpleasant facts, like murder cases, where the facts can be pretty gruesome. How do you handle that with minors present?”

Carpenter, now 39, was charged in November 2007 with kidnapping, false imprisonment and multiple counts of sexual assault. According to court documents, he picked up a 20-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant he found walking along on the streets of Milwaukee that October. He took her to his apartment, where he and two other men sexually assaulted her over the course of a day before he let her go.

A jury sentenced him to 59 years in prison after a four-day trial in 2008.

During a break in the victim’s testimony, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Daniel Konkel posted a sign outside his courtroom barring minors from entering because a sexual assault trial was going on. He made the move after a school group entered the courtroom and the teacher decided they should leave after the prosecutor told them the case wasn’t appropriate for them, according to court documents.

Criminal trials in Wisconsin are generally presumed to be open to the public, but the judge said he didn’t want to violate a state law that makes it illegal to expose children to harmful descriptions and narratives.

Carpenter objected, saying the judge needed to do more legal research and couldn’t simply order the courtroom closed to anyone under 18 simply because it was a sexual assault trial. The judge didn’t remove the sign, though.

Carpenter argued on appeal that the closure was broad and went on for three days, even though other witnesses gave testimony that wasn’t sexually explicit. He argued the law that protects children from harmful material is meant to cover private behavior, not trial testimony.

Graphic testimony is common in sexual assault trials as well as in homicide and robbery trials, he added.

“If the trial court’s ruling is upheld, therefore, the door is opened to not only excluding minors from most sexual assault trials but also trials in many other criminal cases,” Bonneson argued in a brief.

State attorneys countered the decision to exclude minors was reasonable and didn’t infringe on Carpenter’s rights. The proceeding remained open to the general public and he still received a fair trial.

The 1st District Court of Appeals agreed. The court said the closure was limited, the judge clearly indicated the public at large was not excluded.

“Unquestionably the need to protect children from hearing sexually explicit and sexually violent testimony is an overriding public interest,” the court’s opinion said. “That interest … would be obliterated if children were allowed to be present during the trial.”

A message left at the state Justice Department, which handles felony appeals for local prosecutors, wasn’t immediately returned.

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