Our courts are supposed to be public.
The reason for that is simple: Conducting the state’s legal business out in the light of day, rather than under a cloak of secrecy, is the best means by which we can ensure that the system is fair to all.
Prosecution. Plaintiffs. Defendants. Victims. Criminal or civil — the key to ensuring all are treated fairly under the rule of law is to have an open, accessible court system. It needs watching, lest it become corrupted.
Regrettably, we’ve lost confidence that this mechanism of openness will serve the public’s interests — and those of crime victims — in the case of James Dorsey.
Dorsey, 42, has pleaded no contest to murdering his wife, and a litany of related charges. His sentencing hearing is scheduled June 21. Michelle Dorsey’s loved ones will have the opportunity to make victim impact statements, providing the court with food for thought before sentencing Dorsey for traveling more than 15 hours from the state of Washington on April 15 to brutally stab his estranged wife to death while their three children slept in their beds.
Will those victims’ interests and suffering be properly taken into account when Judge Cynthia Ulfig hands down the sentence?
As of now, we won’t be able to properly evaluate that — because Ulfig has banned the media, specifically, and the public, in general, from being in the courtroom.
The lack of transparency will cause many people to distrust the system.
If ever there was a time and a case that called for the bright light of day in the courtroom, this is it.
Instead, Ulfig granted a defense motion to bar the media and its prying eyes from her courtroom on June 21.
No specific reason has been provided, and the record of the defense motion and the hearing on that motion has been ordered sealed. So, if there’s a valid reason for the secrecy, the court has not provided one.
Late this week, it was announced that Ulfig would be reconsidering the order to close the courtroom for the hearing. We strongly encourage her to make a 180-degree change, and ensure that the public and the media have an opportunity to see how Dorsey’s sentencing goes down.
At the moment, though, the order stands.
How could this lack of transparency possibly serve the interests of the victims and public safety?
We’ve always respected Ulfig, who was a deputy district attorney in Santa Clarita before she became a judge serving in the Newhall Municipal Court and, now, the San Fernando Superior Court.
However, she’s left us no choice but to speculate on the possible reasons for slamming the courtroom door on the public in the Dorsey case.
One plausible reason could be that public and media presence might impede the defendant’s right to a fair hearing. But that’s a paper-thin argument. He’s already pleaded no contest.
And, we suppose, if the Dorsey children were to appear in person to deliver victim impact statements, allowing them to do so absent the public spotlight would be a fair consideration. They’ve been through enough.
But that’s not the way this order was handed down. The entire hearing, not just any such specific part of it, is shut off from public view or scrutiny.
What seems more likely: The system and the defense are in a hurry, and they don’t want to be exposed. This is a murder case that has only been in the system for just a few weeks. Murder cases usually take many months, if not years.
Why might they be in a hurry?
Here is our theory:
Thanks to the criminal-friendly directives issued by L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón, the case against Dorsey was filed without any of the sentencing enhancements that could have ensured Dorsey would serve a long sentence. Those enhancements include murder in commission of a burglary, murder committed in the attempt of kidnapping and lying-in-wait.
Without the enhancements, it’s estimated the killer could be eligible for parole in as little as 20 years, rather than the much longer term he deserves.
But, a recall effort is under way against Gascón. And it’s gathering steam. Multiple city councils — including Santa Clarita’s — have taken votes of no confidence in Gascón and his lax policies, which are ostensibly intended to rehabilitate criminals and reduce recidivism and prison overpopulation.
If the recall effort succeeds, and the Dorsey case languishes in court long enough, Gascón’s replacement might be more likely to throw the book at him.
So, Dorsey’s defense is to strike while the iron’s hot: Take a quick no contest plea and strike a deal for a lighter sentence in exchange, before a less criminal-friendly DA has a chance to take over and put a stop to Gascón’s shenanigans.
So, the defense and the DA’s office collude.
Ulfig has to know this is wrong. Some crimes are so heinous that they warrant, yes, actual punishment, not rehabilitation, and no second chances. A man who traveled all those hours across three states — he had a lot of time to think about it — and fatally stabbed the mother of his children while they slept, then fled, should never breathe the air of freedom again.
At minimum, this is a case that warrants life without the possibility of parole. We will never know if there’s any valid reason for anything less — unless the order is lifted — because the judge will have enveloped the process in secrecy, fomenting distrust.
It’s an affront to justice.