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.

Constitutional scholars and
press-freedom advocates deemed the broad secrecy accorded the trial by
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson perplexing—and a likely
violation of the 1st Amendment.


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.

The Times' request for a transcript of the closed proceedings won't be
met until the record is expunged of "sensitive information," said Cruz,
who couldn't say how long that would take.