OPEN COURTS -- A Los Angeles federal judge took the almost unprecedented step of closing a two-day civil trial this week in a case involving the 2005 prison killing of Jewish Defense League activist Earl Krugel, reports Carol J. Williams for the Los Angeles Times.
Wilson issued a protective order covering U.S. Bureau of Prisons policies and practices in evaluating inmates for gang affiliation and potential to harm others. In deference to the order, Wilson banished media and spectators from the courtroom Tuesday and Wednesday, from the swearing in of the first witness through closing arguments. His ruling late Thursday was filed under seal.
"This is outrageous. This is not Russia, North Korea or Iran. This is the United States," said Benjamin Schonbrun, attorney for Krugel's widow, Lola, who was seeking damages for the wrongful death of her husband at the hands of a known white supremacist.
Wilson ruled for the government, "to the plaintiff's immense disappointment," said Schonbrun, adding that he assumed the judge's assertion that the ruling was secret applied only to the justification, not which side won. He said he planned to appeal, pointing to the unorthodox handling of the case.
Constitutional lawyers expressed shock and condemnation of the court's closure.
The non-jury trial Wilson conducted involved the Nov. 4, 2005, murder of Krugel at the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix. Three days after Krugel's arrival, David Frank Jennings, a tattooed racist housed in the general population of the medium-security facility, used a paving stone from the prison recreation yard to bludgeon Krugel to death with five blows to the head.
The widow's suit sought damages for prison authorities' failure to appropriately classify Jennings as a danger to others. It pointed out that Krugel had been kept in protective custody for much of the two years between his arrest and sentencing to 20 years in federal prison for plotting the bombing of a Culver City mosque and an Arab American politician's office.
Wilson declined, via court clerk Paul Cruz, to say why he closed the trial. Cruz said the courtroom was closed because of "testimony that concerned confidential ways prison officials identify gang members, especially the Aryan Brotherhood, which is a very dangerous gang."
"If testimony on that were made public, that would jeopardize how prison administrators validate these types of defendants," Cruz said.
The Times apparently learned of this closure only after the fact. In the old days of an abundant reporting staff, that would not have happened, and Times lawyers would have almost certainly filed a challenge to the order immediately. As things stand, they can do only so much.