A judge has denied a request by Kevin Coe’s lawyers to seal the courtroom during individual juror questioning in his upcoming civil commitment trial.
However, Spokane Superior Court Judge Kathleen M. O’Connor said she’ll consider hearing in private some answers to personal questions about sexual assault and mental-health issues if jurors ask her to.
Coe, 61, known as the South Hill rapist, has served 25 years in prison for the 1980 rape of a Spokane woman. The state is pushing to have him civilly committed as a violent sexual predator. Coe’s legal team had requested a blanket ruling closing the courtroom during the questioning of jurors, called voir dire, to protect them from having to describe sensitive personal issues in open court – and to protect Coe family members who would be harmed if jurors were allowed to “air all manner of rumors and innuendo.”
Early Thursday, in an action supporting that request, Coe signed a waiver of his right to be present during the questioning. He is in the Spokane County Jail awaiting trial.
When prospective jurors fill out questionnaires, about a third reveal they’ve been subject to some form of victimization and might not be “candid and comfortable” discussing their experiences in public, said Tim Trageser, Coe’s lead attorney.
“I believe an open courtroom for individual voir dire is a bad way to select a jury in a case like this,” Trageser said.
The issue of public access to court proceedings is a “hot-button issue” in the state’s appellate courts and the Washington Supreme Court has made no definitive ruling, said Assistant Attorney General Todd Bowers, the state’s lead lawyer in Coe’s civil commitment trial.
But all the recent case law “indicates we should be very cautious in closing the courtroom,” he said.
Bowers, who has handled dozens of civil commitment cases, said some jurors are open about past sexual assaults and some are extremely reluctant to discuss it. He suggested asking jurors whether they think they need to be questioned in private.
As to Coe’s family’s privacy issues, there is “absolutely no reason to close the courtroom,” Bowers said.
Attorney Leslie R. Weatherhead argued for The Spokesman-Review against any blanket courtroom closure, saying Washington state’s constitution has “predetermined the right of the public for access to these proceedings.”
The newspaper generally does not publish the names of sexual abuse victims and would not publish information on a prospective juror who wants personal information kept private, he added.
Coe’s criminal behavior had an “incredible impact” on the community and the state’s 1990 civil commitment statute demands the highest public scrutiny, said Weatherhead.
“The unusual feature of this law – a significant departure from Anglo-American penology – is not to incarcerate (Coe) for something he’s done but for a fear of imminent reoffense in the future. This is a matter of intense public interest,” Weatherhead said.
“If the government is to incarcerate someone for what they might do, it’s deserving of the most careful scrutiny in the media,” he said.
O’Connor also denied a defense request to seal all the juror questionnaires.
She said she may redact some jurors’ answers on these questions: whether they or their family have been charged with sexual assault; whether they’ve been victims of sexual assault; whether they feel they can be fair and impartial sitting on a case involving sexual assault; whether an immediate family member or friend has a mental disorder; whether they’ve been treated for a mental disorder; and whether they’ve been involuntarily committed for mental problems.
This morning some 215 potential jurors – winnowed from a pool of 667 Spokane County residents – will undergo jury orientation for the eight-week trial, meet O’Connor and the lawyers and fill out the jury questionnaires. Jury selection will begin Monday.