An Orange County judge on Thursday denied a defense request to bar the public from the preliminary hearing for Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez, who is accused of attempted murder and rape in connection with an attack in Mission Viejo in 1985.
But Central Municipal Judge B. Tam Nomoto left open the possibility that she might close the courtroom for brief periods upon the request of either the defense or the prosecution.
Nomoto postponed the hearing to Sept. 1 to give defense lawyers time to appeal her ruling. She already has delayed the hearing twice during arguments over the closed courtroom issue.
Ramirez, charged with 14 murders in Los Angeles County, also faces charges in the Aug. 25, 1985, assault on a Mission Viejo couple, William Carns and Inez Erickson. Carns was shot in the head three times by an early morning intruder, who also sexually assaulted Erickson.
Carns is still recovering at a therapy center in Texas. Prosecutors say he remembers nothing about the incident. Erickson, who identified Ramirez in a police lineup as her attacker, is scheduled to be the prosecution’s key witness at the preliminary hearing. She is not expected to testify until at least a week after the hearing resumes.
Erickson has been available to take the witness stand since the preliminary hearing was first scheduled to begin in mid-July. But Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright told the judge that she was scheduled to be in Texas visiting Carns during the first week of September, and won’t be available before Sept. 8.
Enright has told reporters that he is concerned about Erickson because “her therapist tells us that she is very fragile, and that this whole thing has been extremely difficult for her.”
Enright has been sitting on the sidelines while Ramirez’s attorneys argued to close the courtroom. It has been lawyers for The Times and the Orange County Register who have asked the judge in court hearings to keep the courtroom open.
Ramirez’s lawyers, Arturo Hernandez and Daniel Hernandez, introduced evidence in an effort to show that publicity generated by an open courtroom would create additional public prejudice against Ramirez. They argued that this would make it even more difficult for him to receive a fair trial.
But Nancy E. Richman, attorney for The Times, said: “We are not interested in sensationalizing this case; it is already sensational because of the crimes this defendant is accused of. It’s created sincere and honest public concern over the criminal proceedings.”
It was the defense lawyers’ own expert, psychiatrist Paul R. Blair, who hurt their efforts the most.
Blair agreed with defense lawyers’ contention that new media stories about Ramirez would rekindle interest in the Night Stalker case. But on cross-examination by the media lawyers, Blair said perhaps no more than 30% of those traumatized by publicity about the Night Stalker would be so adversely affected that they could not serve as unbiased jurors.
Judge Nomoto said she considered Blair’s remarks as compelling testimony in favor of an open courtroom for the preliminary hearing.
The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine if there is enough evidence to bind a defendant over to stand trial on the charges.
Prosecutor Enright has remained silent on the question of an open hearing. Enright said that while his office almost always argues for an open courtroom, he is concerned about the effect it would have on Erickson.
Ramirez’s lawyers already have an appeal pending before the state Supreme Court, trying to overturn Nomoto’s decision to let the media lawyers participate in the hearing over the closed courtroom.