Supreme Court asked to uphold Walla Walla murder conviction

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WALLA WALLA — County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle has decided to ask the state Supreme Court to reverse a lower appeals-court ruling that grants a new trial for a gang member serving life for murdering a rival and shooting at other people in a 2011 confrontation in a Walla Walla alley.

Nagle’s office filed an 18-page petition Thursday requesting the state’s highest court to review the Spokane-based appeals-court opinion filed in March in the Benito Gomez case.

The three-judge appeals-court panel determined Gomez was not provided a public trial when he was convicted by a Walla Walla County Superior Court jury in 2012.

But Nagle’s office contends only latecomers might not have been seated, the alleged closure was trivial, was for valid security purposes and does not warrant a new trial.

“We felt it’s an important issue (so asked for review),” Nagle said in an interview Thursday.

The Supreme Court now will decide whether to accept review. It’s not known when that will occur.

If the high court does accept, oral arguments will follow before its final ruling is handed down, which could take months.

If the court declines, the appeals-court ruling granting Gomez a new trial will stand, he will be returned to Walla Walla County Superior Court for appointment of a new attorney and the setting of a new trial to begin within 60 days.

Gomez was found guilty at the June 2012 trial of second-degree murder for gunning down 20-year-old gang rival Julio Cesar Martinez on May 17, 2011, in the alley in the 300 block of Myrtle Street.

Gomez also was convicted of six counts of first-degree assault of others in and adjacent to the alley. No one but Martinez was hit by the gunfire.

Gomez, now 21, subsequently was sentenced to nearly 115 years in prison and is serving time at the Washington State Penitentiary.

But the appeals-court panel ruled Gomez was not provided a public trial because then-Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht denied entry into the Walla Walla County Courthouse courtroom after court sessions began.

Schacht — who has since retired — said at the time his decision was partly to address security concerns because the murder and assaults allegedly revolved around gang activity. Also, he said latecomers would be distracting to trial participants.

But in granting the new trial, the appeals-court panel pointed out that both the federal and state constitutions provide a criminal defendant the right to a public trial. The judges’ opinion concluded that Schacht didn’t consider five factors on the record, which is required before closing trial proceedings to the public.

The prosecution in April filed a motion asking the judges to reconsider the decision, but the motion was denied.

Thursday’s request for Supreme Court review maintains Gomez’s public-trial right wasn’t violated because the courtroom was full of spectators, there was no ruling excluding the public and no one objected at the time to Schacht denying admission to latecomers.

“If any member of the public were delayed in entering the courtroom, surely such a delay would have been a trivial limitation on the public’s right to attend,” the prosecution petition says.

It later adds: “The cost to the public of a (new trial), despite the fact that the public was present, despite the absence of any objection or proof of actual exclusion, and despite the judge’s appropriate security concerns, is significant.”

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