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First Amendment
PG asks open custody hearing

Case involves stab victim, 14

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked an Indiana County judge yesterday to open to the public all future hearings regarding the custody of Shayne Stein, the 14-year-old whose father was acquitted last week of charges that he stabbed the boy in the head two years ago.

For more background on Pennsylvania's current open records and open government laws visit our First Amendment Forum.

William Shane Stein of Blairsville said within minutes after hearing the "not guilty" verdict that he wanted his son back immediately. The boy, who was 12 at the time of the attack, is in foster care in Allegheny County.

The youngster remained in a coma for nearly two months after a steak knife was plunged into his skull in the middle of the night, on July 26, 2000, as he lay in his bed. When he emerged from the coma, police said, the boy indicated that his father was the attacker.

Police charged William Stein, and Indiana County Children and Youth Services took custody of Shayne. His mother, Mary Stein, and sister have been permitted to visit him, but his father has not seen him in the past 21 months, as he awaited trial and, ultimately, successfully fought the charges.

In its petition, submitted to Indiana County President Judge William Martin, the Post-Gazette acknowledges that the argument for closed custody proceedings in such cases often is that the child's privacy should be protected. But in this case, the child's name and the details of the case have been widely published and broadcast as a result of the open criminal trial. In addition, members of his family provided the boy's photograph to the media for publication.

The Post-Gazette also argues that the state constitution forbids secret hearings. The constitution guarantees: "All courts shall be open."

All six Allegheny County judges who routinely hear abuse and neglect cases have permitted the Post-Gazette access since the paper requested it in January.

In addition, a Westmoreland County judge, in an opinion issued last month, said that the constitutional protection for open hearings extends to juvenile court.

Westmoreland County Judge Rita Donovan Hathaway decided, however, that opening hearings in the case of the two surviving children of John and Annette Bright of Monessen would not be in their best interest. They are the siblings of Annette Bright, 8, who was shot to death July 15. A friend of the family, Charles E. Koschalk, is charged with her murder.

The Post-Gazette is appealing Hathaway's decision and that of a Cambria County judge who in December refused to open hearings regarding custody of the children of Darlene and Michael Ference. The Ferences had pleaded guilty to abusing their children by withholding food and water from them and locking them in their rooms. Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III said in his opinion that the constitutional guarantee of open court did not apply to juvenile court.

In the case of Shayne Stein, the parents want a judge to order Indiana County CYS to return the boy now that the father has been acquitted.

Their petition could be opposed, however, by testimony and evidence that was prohibited in the criminal trial. There are different standards for evidence in criminal court than there are in some types of juvenile court hearings.

The Post-Gazette argues in its petition that public access to the custody hearing would "promote the proper administration of justice both in the handling of juvenile proceedings subject to public agency jurisdiction and in the courts. Additionally, the public will gain confidence in the judicial system by viewing the proceedings."

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