ELYRIA — A few minutes before the beginning of the preliminary hearing for Ivan Brooks in Elyria Municipal Court on Tuesday morning, Judge Robert White cleared the courtroom of members of the public and media without an explanation.
He then proceeded to hear testimony of an eyewitness in the slaying of Terrence Taylor. White, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, members of the Elyria Police Department and Brooks were in the courtroom for the testimony, but bailiffs prohibited the public and media from hearing the testimony.
A few minutes later, the courtroom was opened up, but certain members of the public were barred from re-entry.
A bailiff clearing the courtroom told people as they were being escorted out that the court was holding a “preliminary preliminary hearing” that they could not sit in on. White was not on the bench when the room was cleared.
Judges rarely empty courtrooms and, in the rare instance when they do, generally allow the media to remain to report to the public about the proceedings.
Tim Smith, a founding member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Media Law Committee of the Ohio Bar Association, said he believed White may have erred by closing the courtroom during the hearing.
“Sure a judge can do that if he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Smith said. “Typically, before you close a courtroom, you should have a hearing, and those who would be affected, like media, would have an opportunity to object. Coming in and summarily shooing everybody out and then holding a hearing is improper procedure.”
White later explained that he was asked by City Prosecutor Michelle Nedwick to clear the courtroom to conduct an in-camera review — Latin for in private. Nedwick declined to comment Tuesday afternoon.
But Elyria Law Director Scott Serazin said the review regarded people making threats over social media against the eyewitness, Bianca Tavarez, the victim’s girlfriend. Serazin said it was initiated to remove certain people from the courtroom.
Serazin said “removing the media from the courtroom was not part of our request, and it wasn’t something we even knew about.”
White said “only during that hearing as to whether or not the courtroom should be cleared, was it cleared.” He also cited courtroom security and concerns as to whether Tavarez would be safe.
Smith said that the security in the courthouse, which requires people to go through a metal detector upon entry, should have been enough to ensure the safety of the witness.”
“You take precautions to ensure the safety of the people present,” Smith said. “What you don’t do is take extraordinary precautions to basically throw the media out.”
White said that he told all parties involved that he would not bar the media from the preliminary hearing.
Later in the day White released the video of the in camera hearing to The Chronicle-Telegram. According to the video, the hearing was to determine whether certain individuals or all individuals should be excluded from the courtroom for the preliminary hearing.
The eyewitness, Tavarez, testified that two people had made threats to her either through Facebook or in person. One was a member of the victim’s family, and the other allegedly had said she would attack Tavarez the next time she saw her, no matter where it was.
White then ruled that the two individuals would be barred from the courtroom during the preliminary hearing and concluded the in camera hearing.
Once the preliminary hearing began, Nedwick called one witness to the stand, Elyria police Detective Benjamin Harris. During his testimony, Harris stated what Tavarez saw the night of the incident.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Derek Farmer argued that the only testimony that linked his client to the shooting of Taylor was hearsay. White then said that he took that to be an objection and said he would reopen testimony in the hearing and allow Nedwick to call another witness.
Nedwick called Tavarez to the stand.
White made the decision to re-open testimony without a motion from either the prosecutor or the defense.
“I can do that, and in fact, I felt that I had to in the interest of justice to do it that way,” White said. “I did it because of the fact there was an objection in his close, but he didn’t make it on the record. I felt that as a judge, I needed to see if there was any other evidence that I needed to hear. It’s something that doesn’t normally happen, but I felt I had to do that based upon what had occurred.”
While Smith was critical of White’s decision to clear the courtroom, he was complimentary of White’s decision to reopen testimony.
“Judges can do whatever they damn well please. That’s the great thing about being a judge,” Smith said. “You get to do whatever you want, and maybe six month or a year from now an appeals court will say, ‘You shouldn’t have don’t that.’ …In this particular case, what the judge did was essentially the appropriate thing to do.”
Smith said that White didn’t have to re-open testimony and could have sent the case to the grand jury based on the evidence that he had.
“Instead, he said, ‘We’ve got an eyewitness here; put her on the stand and let’s hear what she has to say,’” Smith said. “What happens when you do that is you give the defense the opportunity to cross examine, and usually the prosecutor doesn’t want to do that. This eyewitness doesn’t have to talk to defense lawyers, but if you put her on the stand, she’s going to have to answer questions.”