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

Kaheem Arbelo, right, was in a court hearing Tuesday, August 25, 2015, with his counsel Kellie Peterson. Kaheem is suspected of being the ringleader in the machete murder of 17-year-old Jose Amaya Guardado.
Kaheem Arbelo, right, was in a court hearing Tuesday, August 25, 2015, with his counsel Kellie Peterson. Kaheem is suspected of being the ringleader in the machete murder of 17-year-old Jose Amaya Guardado. Miami Herald File

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

The decision also pointed to “sensational print and online stories and images from Florida, England, Ireland, Iceland, El Salvador,” among other outlets.

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 be 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.

Potential jurors are normally questioned about their exposure to the media during jury selection, and whether they can be fair and impartial despite having learned about the case before.

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.

Guardado vanished from the Homestead campus in June 2015. His brother found him buried in a shallow grave in the woods near the campus in South Miami-Dade. He had been hacked so viciously that “his face caved in,” according to an arrest report released by the police department.

According to the police report, Strickland and Kaheem Arbelo had sex in the woods after the group cleaned up the crime scene and buried the dead teen.

A lawyer for Arbelo, suspected of being the 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.”

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.

Wednesday’s ruling was met with dismay by advocates of the free press, who point out that recent murder cases with much greater coverage — defendants such as Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman and Facebook killer Derek Medina — managed to seat juries without closing pretrial hearings.

Barbara Petersen, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said the ruling sets a “troubling” precedent that could lead to the potential closing of virtually any criminal-case hearing in Florida.

“Of course, it’s bothersome. To say we have to close a bond hearing because it’s going to taint a jury pool, frankly, I don’t buy it,” Petersen said, adding: “The fact that people in Iceland are interested — so what? They are not in the jury pool.”

Samuel J. Morley, the general counsel for the Florida Press Association, said the closing of the entire hearing seemed “overly broad.”

“It seems a stretch to close the hearing to allow seating of an impartial jury in such a large county as Miami-Dade, where the trial has not been scheduled yet,” Morley said. “I would think there are less drastic ways to deal with this issue including voir dire in selecting of the jury pool.”