By Lindsay Cates
A judge ruled Wednesday in Rockbridge County Circuit Court that a rejected and sealed plea agreement will remain sealed until the case against former Washington and Lee University student Nicholas Hansel is resolved.
“Never in the case of my career have I seen such provisions in a plea agreement,” said Judge Jay T. Swett. “Were the public to see the terms, it would create substantial prejudice looking at a trial that is six to seven weeks away.”
Judge Swett left the courtroom to read the plea for himself after both the prosecution and defense said the stipulations in this particular agreement were unusual.
Professor Brian Richardson, head of W&L’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, filed a letter on Sept. 18, asking the court to unseal the rejected plea agreement. He filed the request on behalf of the journalism department to “permit our students to report, write and broadcast stories about this important case.”
Defense attorneys Anthony Anderson, John Lichtenstein and John Fishwick Jr.’s arguments came down to advocating for Hansel’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
Fishwick said Judge Michael Irvine “did everything absolutely to the book” in sealing the agreement on Aug. 21 to ensure the potential jury pool was not tainted.
Richardson’s attorney, Alice Neff Lucan, said that this issue “is entirely ruled by the First Amendment.”
Lucan said public access is essential in order for the community to “trust the system.”
Before giving a ruling on the plea, Swett heard arguments from both sides to determine whether Richardson had standing to intervene in the first place. There was also discussion regarding whether Judge Irvine took the proper procedures when he sealed the plea in August. After that step, Irvine removed himself from the case and Swett was appointed to replace him.
Swett ruled Wednesday that Richardson did have standing and praised him for bringing the issue forward.
“We promote our judicial system on transparency,” Swett said. “Our public needs to have faith in what is done.”
Although the agreement remains sealed for now, Richardson said he was glad the judge made clear that citizens are able to come forward.
“I still think justice would be better served by disclosure but I am grateful the judge gave a ringing endorsement of the public’s right of access,” Richardson said.
Hansel, 22, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and driving under the influence in connection with the death of W&L senior Kelsey Durkin last Dec. 3. Hansel was driving an SUV whose passengers included Durkin and nine other W&L students. Authorities say Hansel lost control of the SUV, which hit a tree stump and overturned on Turkey Hill Road.
A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 8 for Swett to rule on outstanding motions. Hansel’s trial is set for Jan. 20.