ALBANY, GEORGIA – The right to attend public hearings and participate in our democratic form of government is being systematically denied to members of the public who attempt to watch hearings held in courtrooms in the Ben Hill and Crisp County Jails.
Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed Fuqua, et al. v. Pridgen, et al. in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia to open courtroom doors that are too often closed to the public. The named Defendants in the lawsuit are Superior Court Judges John Pridgen, Robert Chasteen, Jr., and T. Christopher Hughes, Crisp County Sheriff Donnie Haralson, and Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore.
Both the United States and Georgia constitutions protect the public’s right to attend hearings in criminal cases. Yet judges and sheriffs in Ben Hill and Crisp counties routinely deny access to members of the public seeking to observe hearings in the jail courtrooms. Generally, exceptions are made only for relatives of people who come before the court, but they are allowed to watch only the hearings involving their relatives. On occasion, they are not even allowed to watch those hearings.
“The First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee open courtrooms,” says attorney Gerald Weber with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Day in and day out, families and loved ones of criminal defendants appearing in Ben Hill and Crisp counties are relegated to crowded jail lobbies even though there are empty seats in the courtrooms where the fate of their family member will be decided. Each time the courtroom door opens, families crowd around, peering in and hoping to catch a glimpse of their jailed son, daughter, or grandchild. This secrecy is not allowed in the American justice system.”
The following examples are typical denials of access to the courtrooms:
o Beverly Fuqua attempted on three occasions to enter the Ben Hill County Law Enforcement Center to see her son’s court appearances, only to be told she’d have to wait until her son’s case was called. Each time she waited hours, but she was never allowed into the courtroom to watch any hearing.
o Virginia Stillwell Goodman, along with her daughter and niece, went to the Crisp County Law Enforcement Center to see her incarcerated nephew’s arraignment. A deputy told her she would have to wait in the lobby until his case was called. She waited outside almost three hours. When she entered, she noticed multiple empty seats.
o Joyce Scales, along with her sister, drove 3 hours from Lithonia to watch the arraignment of her nephew in the Crisp County Detention Center, only to be told that she would have to wait in the hall. After waiting three hours, and asking a sheriff’s deputy, she learned that her nephew entered a not guilty plea and was returned to his cell.
o James W. Davis III is a pastor of Salem AME and was President of the Ben Hill County chapter of the NAACP until 2008. His ministry provides support to those in jail and supports them during their hearings though he’s repeatedly turned away by deputies for not being related to a defendant.
Frequently, family members who have traveled long distances are excluded even when seats are available.
Weber added, “Family members and the general public have no way of gauging the fairness of criminal proceedings when they are kept out.”
This is the second time that SCHR has sued officials in the Cordele Circuit for excluding the public from jail courtroom hearings. In 2003, SCHR, on behalf of several individuals and the Ben Hill and Crisp County branches of the NAACP, challenged closed jail courtrooms as part of a civil rights lawsuit addressing the Circuit’s inadequate system for providing legal representation for poor people accused of crimes. SCHR ultimately dismissed the case in August 2004 because a public defender office was created and Ben Hill County and Crisp County allowed public access to criminal proceedings in jail courtrooms.
SCHR staff attorney Atteeyah Hollie serves as co-counsel on this case, and SCHR Investigator Mary Sidney Kelly Harbert serves as the case's senior investigator and paralegal.
For additional information, contact Kathryn Hamoudah at 404/688-1202 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To read the complaint, click here.
To read the Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary and/or Permanent Injuction, click here.
To read the Plaintiffs' Brief in Support of Motion for Preliminary and/or Permanent Injuction, click here.
Fulton County Daily Report, At Issue: Closed courts or limited seating?, June 28, 2012
Fulton County Daily Report, Public shut out of Georgia courts, July 3, 2012
Fulton County Daily Report, Public's right to court access isn't absolute, Cordele judges say, August 3, 2012