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Westmoreland Neighborhoods
Judge closes hearing on custody case for Bright children

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Westmoreland County judge yesterday became the second jurist outside Allegheny County to deny a request that reporters and the public be allowed to witness juvenile court hearings involving abused and neglected children.

 
 

For more about juvenile justice, including the closing of court proceedings, read Barbara White Stack's Juvenile Court Journal.

   
 

After a seven-month delay in making a ruling, Westmoreland County Judge Rita Donovan Hathaway decided to exclude the press and public from hearings concerning the custody of the surviving children of John and Annette Bright of Monessen.

Their 8-year-old daughter, Annette Bright, was shot to death July 15. A family friend, Charles E. Koschalk, 35, also of Monessen, is charged with her murder.

Hathaway said she could not open the hearings because that would result in injury to the surviving children. The Post-Gazette will appeal her decision, as it did a ruling last year in a Cambria County case.

In that matter, Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III denied the public access to hearings involving the custody of the children of Darlene and Michael Ference, who had pleaded guilty to abusing their children by withholding food and water from them and locking them in their rooms.

Just before yesterday's custody hearing in Westmoreland County, Karen L. Kieffer, attorney for Annette Bright, withdrew her previous objections to media coverage. And John R. McCreary, attorney for John Bright, said his client had considered doing so as well.

Hathaway said, however, that would not change her ruling because it was based on the best interest of the children, not the parents.

The Brights' two surviving children, John Jr., 8, and Marcia, 13, were placed in foster care three weeks after their sister's killing. Westmoreland County child welfare workers took the action after learning that the Brights had permitted Koschalk to be alone with Marcia even after he had pleaded guilty to corruption of the morals of a minor for keeping Marcia out all night.

At yesterday's hearing before Hathaway, the Brights were seeking return of their children. They left the courthouse without their children and declined to talk to reporters.

Before the hearing, however, John Bright said he wanted the proceedings opened because he wanted people to see what he thought was the judge's unfair treatment of him and his wife.

Last fall, the Post-Gazette petitioned Hathaway to open the hearings in the Bright custody case, citing the state constitutional guarantee that "all courts shall be open."

The Post-Gazette pointed out that the children's names and accounts of their family history already had been published and broadcast repeatedly. In addition, the Brights have talked to the media at every hearing -- as they did yesterday -- so information about the hearings became public whether or not reporters were permitted in the courtroom.

Hathaway acknowledged in her opinion that the open hearings guarantee applies to juvenile court and she described at length the value of open hearings in a free, democratic society.

But, she said, any court hearing may be closed under certain circumstances, particularly to guarantee justice is served or when a closed hearing serves an important government interest.

She said closing the Bright hearings would protect the vulnerable young surviving children from publicity that would humiliate them.

Post-Gazette Staff Writer Ernie Hoffman contributed to this report.

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