Hearing in machete-murder case can be secret, Miami appeals court rules

A key pre-trial hearing in a South Florida murder case can be held in secret because of publicity surrounding the killing, a Miami appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

The decision upends decades of press access to Miami criminal court and bans reporters from covering a bail hearing for two defendants accused in the machete-death of a Homestead student in 2015.

The panel of three judges from the Third District Court of Appeal agreed with a trial court that the flood of information available in the modern digital age could potentially sway jurors at a future trial.

“The speed of dissemination and the high percentage of likely jurors with access to social media and the internet also support the trial judge’s concern,” Judge Vance Salter wrote in the opinion.

The panel also cited a Miami Herald article that described a police version of events as a “bloody scene” and “reads like a scene from the classic novel Lord of the Flies.”

“These circumstances could not be ignored as the trial court reviewed inflammatory images and sought to assure the respondents’ constitutional right to a fair trial in Miami-Dade County,” Salter wrote.

Wednesday’s ruling upheld a decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dava Tunis, who said that Desiray Strickland and Joseph Cabrera’s right to a fair trial would be violated if the media were allowed to attend a so-called “Arthur” hearing to determine whether they can released on bail before trial.

Her decision was highly unusual — Florida is generally known as having one of the most transparent criminal-court systems in the country, and hearings are rarely, if ever, closed to the public.

She ruled that “pervasive publicity” surrounding the case would jeopardize the right to a fair and impartial jury in the future. At the Arthur hearing, prosecutors are expected to detail the confessions of four defendants; those statements have been sealed by the court under Florida law.

Strickland and Cabrera, along with three others, are accused of conspiring to murder Jose Amaya Guardado, whose viciously stabbed body was discovered in June 2015 in a shallow grave in the woods of Homestead. All of them, including the victim, attended Homestead Job Corps, a live-in school and vocational training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The closure of the courtroom was opposed by the Miami Herald and WPLG-ABC10, who appealed to the Third DCA.

“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling and are now evaluating our options,” said Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez.

A lawyer for Kaheem Arbelo, the suspected ringleader, hailed the decision on Wednesday.

“These are difficult decisions and we are mindful of the First Amendment and the public’s interest in this case but we also must first protect our client,” said lawyer Phil Reizeinstein. “We are grateful the trial and appellate court understood our concerns.”