CHEYENNE — A bill that would have changed Wyoming law to allow the release of names of people charged with sexual assault before until they’re bound over to district court died Tuesday in the state House of Representatives.
The House voted 32 to 24 to kill House Bill 178, sponsored by Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, an assistant Park County prosecutor.
Krone emphasized in debate on the House floor that sexual assault charges are treated differently than any other charge under existing state law. He said a defendant must go through a preliminary hearing in circuit court and a judge must determine that there is sufficient evidence to send the case to district court before the defendant’s name can be released to the public.
Krone argued that arrests on sexual assault charges should be treated the same as arrests on charges of murder and other crimes.
“I think the public has the right to know when somebody’s charged with such an egregious crime,” Krone said. He said it can take many weeks from the time a defendant is arrested before they’re ultimately bound over into district court.
Several opponents argued that sexual assault cases deserve special treatment. They said the charge carries such stigma that it’s proper to require a judge to determine that there is sufficient evidence to send the case to district court before the defendant’s name can be released to the public.
“The reason that we created this statute is just the stigma of being branded as a certain kind of person without a finding of probable cause can be as bad or worse than a criminal sentence,” said House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette.
Lubnau said the bill presented the chance “to do great damage to innocent people.”
The Wyoming Press Association, several Wyoming newspapers and The Associated Press filed a legal challenge last year after a circuit judge closed court proceedings for a Casper man who pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping and sexual abuse of a Glenrock girl last summer.
District Judge Keith Kautz, of Torrington, recently ruled that circuit court hearings and records concerning sex crimes don’t necessarily have to be closed. The case is still pending, and his ruling doesn’t apply statewide.
Authorities in Fremont County recently relied on the same provision of law to withhold the names of both the victim and a suspect in a homicide until charges were filed in district court.
Bruce Moats, lawyer for the Press Association has said the media organizations believe the current state law is unconstitutional. He argued to Kautz that the First Amendment requires judges to hold criminal proceedings in public regardless of any contradictory state laws. He said federal courts have struck down laws in other states that sought to keep court hearings closed.