RIGHT TO KNOW: Murder case secrecy ‘adds to devastation’
Queenslanders are being kept in the dark about the case of a teenager charged over the heartbreaking deaths of a loving couple on Australia Day that sparked public outrage and sweeping changes to youth justice laws.
Despite widespread community interest in the high-profile case, Magistrate Rosemary Gilbert yesterday locked the public out of court proceedings for the 17-year-old accused of killing Kate Leadbetter, Matt Field and their unborn child in a horror crash.
It prompted the opposition to call on the Attorney-General to explain the veil of secrecy, while the state's homicide victims' support group warned victims' rights were being "overlooked" at times and the secrecy risked "adding to the devastation".
Ms Gilbert denied an application by seven media outlets, including The Courier-Mail, to cover the closed court mention of the teen charged with the alleged murders of the couple who were struck and killed while walking their dog at Alexandra Hills.
Under Queensland legislation, media can be allowed by a magistrate to cover closed court matters if the court decides their presence will not prejudice the interests of the child.
The court had previously granted permission for media to be allowed to report the first mention of the teen's case after his arrest in late January and, at the time, prosecutors did not oppose the application.
However, yesterday, both defence lawyer Jacilynn Young and prosecutor Carolyn McKeon opposed the applications by journalists to report on the matter.
Magistrate Rosemary Gilbert did not allow media to be present in court when Ms Young and Ms McKeon made their arguments so the reasons for their submissions are not known.
"I decline the application today (for you) to be present for proceedings as I consider that the presence of media organisations and reporting of today's proceedings would be prejudicial to the interest of the child," Magistrate Gilbert told journalists when they were allowed back into the courtroom.
Shadow Attorney-General Tim Nicholls acknowledged it was a "complex issue" but called for Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman to explain the secrecy surrounding the controversial case.
"This tragedy has garnered immense public interest, inspiring Queenslanders to push the state government to change youth justice laws," Mr Nicholls said.
"The Attorney-General has to explain why transparency is not appropriate in this instance."
Bond University's Associate Professor of Criminology Terry Goldsworthy said the decision fell short of community expectations.
"If you can clearly hide the identity of the young person then I think the community should be entitled to know what's happening in court," Dr Goldsworthy said.
Queensland Homicide Victims' Support Group chief executive Brett Thompson said court proceedings were especially difficult for victims of juvenile offenders due to the added layer of protection for child defendants.
"Our position is that we believe in transparency and we also believe that victims have the right to know what's going on in the hearings that they've been forced into," he said.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman said the legislation stipulated that juvenile hearings were closed to the public.
"The Act gives a discretion to the court to allow media into the courtroom so long as it's not prejudicial to the interests of a child," the spokesman said.
"Because of this, it would not be appropriate for the Attorney-General to comment or intervene in matters currently before the court."
A spokesman for the Premier said: "Under the separation of powers it's not appropriate for the Premier to interfere in the operations of the court."
After the deaths of the young couple, the 17-year-old Waterford West teen was originally charged with two counts of murder and one of dangerous operation of a vehicle when adversely affected by an intoxicating substance.
Police last week charged him with an extra eight offences including three counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle while adversely affected by an intoxicating substance, and one of driving with a disqualified licence.
It is understood the hearing yesterday was for a simple adjournment to allow the fresh charges to marry up with the original charges, which are due to be mentioned late next month.
It is alleged he was behind the wheel of a stolen Toyota Landcruiser when he crashed into the couple, who were out walking their dog.
The deaths prompted widespread community outrage.
The state government last week announced changes to the system in a bid to crackdown on juvenile offenders with new measures to be introduced including GPS trackers for recidivist offenders aged 16 and 17, strengthened bail laws and the creation of a presumption against bail for youth offenders arrested for indictable offences while already on bail.
Originally published as Court imposed secrecy in murder case