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Lawyers for Brights seek closed hearings, assail 'media frenzy'

Saturday, October 27, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Four Westmoreland County lawyers have asked a judge to deny the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's request for public hearings in the juvenile court case concerning John and Annette Bright's children, who were placed in foster care after a family friend was charged with murdering their 8-year-old sister.

 
 
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The lawyers accused the Post-Gazette of seeking access to the hearings only to sell newspapers. The news stories feed what the lawyers described as the public's prurient interest in the case.

The Brights allowed their daughter, Marcia, now 13, to be alone with a man after he had pleaded guilty to corrupting her morals for keeping her out overnight. That man, Charles Koschalk, 35, of Monessen, is now charged with killing Marcia's sister, 8-year-old Annette Bright.

Leslie J. Uncapher, who represents the surviving children, Marcia and 7-year-old John Bright, argued that their right to privacy overrides the public's right to know about the case. Attorney MaryAnn Grec, who represents the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, said the public should not even be interested in the case.

Several people who know the Bright family have complained that long before Annette was killed, they reported what they believed was an improper relationship between Koschalk and the other Bright children. These Westmoreland residents have asked why the Children's Bureau did nothing until after one of the Bright children was dead.

In a brief filed this week, Uncapher said, "The media frenzy over this case has been unprecedented in recent history in Westmoreland County."

"Unlike a juvenile defendant in a delinquency proceeding, these children did nothing to solicit the attention and focus of a rabid media," Uncapher said. She invoked a common argument that hearings regarding abused and neglected children should be private because those children are innocent, while delinquency trials may be open because those children invited the attention by being accused of crimes.

The Post-Gazette asked Common Pleas Judge Rita D. Hathaway to open the juvenile court hearings concerning the Brights based on a guarantee in the Pennsylvania Constitution that "all courts shall be open." In addition, the Post-Gazette argued that a state law closing juvenile court hearings gives judges discretion to open them to those with a proper interest.

The Post-Gazette has argued that opening the hearings will promote the proper administration of justice, educate the public and increase the public's confidence in the court system. These are arguments the U.S. Supreme Court has cited in other cases to justify opening hearings.

Uncapher and Grec contend that opening juvenile hearings would have a chilling effect on witnesses' willingness to testify truthfully. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that open hearings promote truth-telling by witnesses fearful of lying in public and encourage witnesses to come forward.

Karen L. Kiefer, who represents the children's mother, did not file a brief. She said she agreed with one submitted by John R. McCreary, who represents the children's father and who argued that the hearing should remain closed.



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