Scant evidence? Prosecutors trump Taylor's request for open hearing
Anyone hoping to get more information about the evidence prosecutors might be mustering against abduction suspect Randy Allen Taylor would likely feel disappointed after an August 20 ruling closing Taylor's upcoming bond hearing to citizens and media clamoring to learn more about the disappearance of Nelson County teen Alexis Tiara Murphy.
Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, however, says he's not surprised that prosecutors in a small community like Nelson, whose population stands below 15,000, would try to shield their hand.
"How are you ever going to get a jury together if they know everything there is to know about the case in any sensationalized way?" Heilberg asks of the case that has also drawn widespread national attention.
Taylor, a 48-year-old Lovingston resident, was arrested August 11 and charged with abduction in the disappearance of 17-year-old Murphy. By his own months-earlier admission, Taylor is also considered a suspect in the disappearance of another teen, Orange County resident Samantha Ann Clark, who vanished in 2010, on a night when Taylor had repeatedly contacted her by telephone.
In the recent case, investigators have revealed little of the evidence that formed the basis for the arrest, and the warrants have been sealed. Through his attorney, Taylor has indicated he was told by investigators that they'd found a single hair belonging to Murphy in his trailer. His assertions admit that while he did see Murphy the night of August 3 when she vanished, he was not the last to see her. He alleges that an unnamed man whom he describes as a black marijuana dealer in his 20s and driving a 20-year-old burgundy Chevy Caprice with 22-inch rims, left Taylor's property with the teen.
While Heilberg was not present in the Nelson County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for the ruling closing the bond hearing, and has not spoken with prosecutors or with Taylor's attorney, he suspects the decision was based on the "rarely invoked" 1979 ruling in Gannett Co. vs DePasquale.
In that case, the parent company of two Rochester, New York, newspapers and a television station that hoped to cover preliminary hearings sued a New York judge, Daniel DePasquale, who'd blocked media from the courtroom for pretrial hearings in a high-profile murder trial. Gannett's effort to overturn DePasquale's ruling failed.
"Essentially, to keep from prejudicing the public in a sensational case, you may close pre-trial hearings," is Heilberg's summary of the case. The analyst points out that the law requires all criminal trials to be open to the public, and he says that the public can attend Taylor's trial if the case reaches that point.
"Eventually, the public will know everything," says Heilberg. "But this allows you to put a jury together."
A defense attorney with some prosecutorial experience, Heilberg says that both sides typically try to keep media away from high-profile cases. In Taylor's case, however, his Charlottesville-based attorney, Mike Hallahan, opposed the motion to close the courtroom.
Heilberg says Hallahan— who has already made several public statements offering details on his client's version of the night Murphy disappeared— may be trying to stem what he sees as a tide of public sentiment flowing against his client. Heilberg suspects "the defense has some things going for it, and Mr. Hallahan wants the public to know about it."
This case is not the first in Central Virginia to attract recent national attention, which can include near daily coverage on what Heilberg calls "infotainment" programs like Nancy Grace. He recalls that the intense media coverage of the 2012 murder trial of former UVA lacrosse player George Huguely led to defense claims that the coverage affected the outcome.
"That's one of the grounds for appeal" in that case, says Heilberg. "And the problems with the Huguely case are magnified in a place as tiny as Nelson."
Taylor's bond hearing is scheduled for Thursday, August 22 at 1pm. Although the details of the hearing will not be released, the outcome, Heilberg says, will be clear.
"Everyone," says Heilberg, "is going to know whether this guy is out on bail or not."Read more on: Randy Allen Taylor