- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The Wyoming Supreme Court must decide whether to grant better media access to circuit court proceedings in sex assault cases.

The court heard arguments Tuesday on an appeal by the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office. The state is challenging a 2012 ruling from a district judge who said circuit court hearings in sex assault don’t have to be closed.

Wyoming law prohibits all public employees - except a presiding judge - from disclosing a defendant’s name in a sexual assault case filed in circuit court. The charges become public only if the circuit court determines there’s enough evidence to require a defendant to answer the charges in district court.

State law doesn’t afford similar anonymity to other criminal defendants at the circuit court level.

The Wyoming Legislature last year rejected legislation that would have required people arrested on sexual assault charges to be treated the same as other defendants.

House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, spoke against the bill last year.

“The reason that we created this statute is just the stigma of being branded as a certain kind of person without a finding of probable cause can be as bad or worse than a criminal sentence,” Lubnau said.

The case before the Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday stems from the prosecution of Robert J. Parks, a Casper man who was charged in 2012 in connection with the abduction and sexual assault of a girl in Glenrock.

Circuit Judge I. Vincent Case Jr. didn’t rule on a request from the Casper Star-Tribune newspaper to open the initial court records in Parks’ case before Case transferred the case to district court. Parks later entered no-contest pleas to criminal charges and received a lengthy prison term in 2013.

The Casper newspaper and papers, the Wyoming Press Association and The Associated Press all challenged Case’s closure of circuit court proceedings in Parks’ case.

Ruling on the media groups’ challenge, District Judge Keith Kautz of Torrington decided in 2012 that circuit court sexual abuse cases don’t have to be entirely closed to the public.

Kautz noted in his ruling that state law prohibits the disclosure of the names of the defendant and the victim. However, he wrote, “It certainly seems possible that the circuit court could have complied with these requirements without sealing the file or closing hearings.”

Cathleen Parker, senior assistant attorney general, told Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday that her office takes the position that circuit court proceedings on sex assault cases should remain closed.

Under questioning from justices, Parker said the stigma of sexual assault charges, even if they’re dropped, can follow a person for life.

Kautz’s ruling suggested it would be possible to open circuit court proceedings to the public without naming the defendant. But Parker disagreed.

“If you have an open proceeding and you allow the public to recognize the defendant, you’ve completely undermined the legislative intent,” Parker said.

Bruce Moats, lawyer for media groups, said the Supreme Court should either endorse Kautz’s ruling or reject the state law forbidding the release of defendants’ names as unconstitutional.

The Wyoming Supreme Court will enter a ruling on the case later.

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