Two Williston men, Juan Martinez and Everest Moore, were convicted of crimes involving children in two separate trials involving separate allegations. Martinez was found guilty of continuous sexual abuse of a child in February 2019. Moore was found guilty of multiple counts of gross sexual imposition in September 2019.
Both men successfully appealed their convictions to the North Dakota Supreme Court, arguing that portions of their trial were closed to the public without the proper pre-closure analysis conducted, thereby violating their Sixth Amendment rights. After the state Supreme Court reversal, Moore is set to go to trial again later this year. Martinez, however, will not be retried after the Williams County State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the case in April.
“We generally don’t trust things that happen in secret. We don’t trust secret trials with secret witnesses that give secret testimony,” said Kiara Kraus-Parr, who represented Martinez on appeal. “It’s much easier to treat defendants unfairly when none of this is done in front of the public. So that’s really why public trial right is so important,” said Kraus-Parr.
There are times when a courtroom can be closed to the public. For instance, North Dakota law allows courtroom closure for child witness testimony when certain conditions apply.
Greg Kasowski, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Dakota, says testifying in sexual abuse trials can be particularly traumatic for children.
“It’s a difficult experience. Very emotionally draining, emotionally taxing. Picture the child sitting in front of a jury they don’t know, an intimidating judge, lawyers,” said Kasowski.
In the Martinez trial, the courtroom was closed for the testimony of the alleged victim, with the exception of a newspaper reporter who was allowed to remain present. The courtroom was also closed for a counselor’s testimony, once again with the reporter allowed to be present. The state Supreme Court ruled the closure of the counselor’s testimony was an error, saying in its majority opinion, “The district court’s findings in support of the second closure are clearly erroneous.” Martinez’s conviction was reversed and the charge was ultimately dismissed.
“That’s solely under the discretion of the prosecutor as to whether or not they want to retry the case,” said Kraus-Parr.
KX News reached out to Nathan Madden, assistant state’s attorney for Williams County, who prosecuted the Martinez case. Madden declined a request for an interview, citing caseload volume.
KX News also reached out to Judge Benjamen Johnson, who presided over the Martinez trial and made the rulings on the courtroom closures. Johnson also declined a request for an interview through a courtroom recorder who told us he wasn’t comfortable discussing the case.
A review of court records by KX News reveals that the courtroom closure was a matter of contention even before the Martinez trial began. Madden filed a petition for supervisory writ to the state Supreme Court prior to the start of the trial.
In the petition, Madden stated, “Effectively, this Order would generate the same type of structural error regarding courtroom closure that results in the automatic reversal of cases after trial has occurred, as the Order is internally contradictory with regard to the factors for closing the courtroom and the ultimate decision to allow media coverage of the closed portions.”
Madden argued that the courtroom should be closed to the public entirely, including the reporter, for the testimony of the alleged victim and counselor. The petition was denied by the state Supreme Court.
“The right to go attend trials is a right of the press and the right of the people at large,” said Kraus-Parr.
Weeks after the North Dakota Supreme Court reversal of the Martinez conviction, Madden filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing several reasons. According to the motion to dismiss, the alleged victim would be unavailable to testify and family members expressed concern about the trauma of a retrial.
“A lot of times when you have a case and it’s done, they feel that it’s finished, they’ve closed that door, that chapter is hopefully over in their life and for this case to come back, it’s just really difficult,” said Kasowski.
With the motion to dismiss, Martinez cannot be retried for the charge. A spokesperson for the North Dakota Office of the Attorney General confirmed to KX News that because his conviction was reversed, Martinez never appeared on the state sex offender registry.