A judge has rejected a request to close a courtroom that was based in part on Marsy’s Law.
In a ruling issued Monday afternoon, Northwest District Judge Benjamen Johnson refused to close the courtroom during the testimony of a teenager and his mother in the upcoming trial of Bryton Dahl.
Dahl, who was a Williston police officer from November 2015 through March 2017 and a McKenzie County Sheriff’s deputy from March 2017 through June 2017, was charged in August 2017 with corruption or solicitation of a minor, a class C felony.
Dahl is accused of having a sexual relationship with the teenager when he was 22 and the teen was 16. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday in Northwest District Court in Williston.
The prosecution asked to have the courtroom closed during the testimony of the teen and his mother as a way to shield his identity and protect him from public embarrassment. In addition to Marsy’s Law, the constitutional amendment approved in 2016 that added a list of rights for crime victims to the state constitution, the prosecution also cited North Dakota law that allows judges to close courtrooms during the testimony of a child who was the victim of a crime.
The prosecution argued that although the teen recently turned 18 and is therefore no longer a juvenile, the alleged sexual relationship happened when he was still underage.
In her brief requesting the closure of the courtroom, Sandy Jones, assistant state’s attorney for Williams County, also said the facts of the relationship could also cause the teen to be bullied or judged unfairly.
“Due to the homosexuality involved in this matter and because this case involved the victim willingly participating in sexual acts or contact with the defendant, it is believed that certain members of the public will view the victim harshly,” Jones wrote.
In his ruling, Johnson examined the claim about privacy, especially as it relates to Marsy’s Law.
“Marsy’s Law grants crime victims multiple rights, but especially pertinent to this matter are the victim’s right ‘to be treated with fairness and respect’ and the victim’s ‘right to privacy,’” Johnson wrote.
That, he wrote, has to be balanced against U.S. and state constitutional guarantees of a public trial. The text of the constitutional amendment that created Marsy’s Law states that nothing in the law overrules a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a speedy, public trial.
“As such, Marsy’s Law does not grant the right to have the courtroom closed for the victim, nor for the victim’s mother during their respective testimony,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson also wrote that the teen’s age didn’t warrant closing the courtroom, and neither did the possibility of embarrassment. He noted the growing support for same-sex marriage, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled same-sex marriage was a fundamental right.
“The opprobrium the victim will face due to being in a homosexual relationship is not sufficient enough to warrant the closure of the courtroom,” he wrote.
Jury selection for Dahl’s trial is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday.