Kmart abduction: Media blocked on ‘public morality’ grounds
THE shocking case of a man who allegedly lured a little girl from her mother while Christmas shopping at a Moreton Bay Kmart before molesting her is shrouded in secrecy after a magistrate used century-old legislation to block the open administration of justice.
Child justice advocates have called for a review and laws to be changed, saying the archaic "public morality" justification used to restrict access to the hearing could lead to distrust of authorities, while veteran criminal lawyers say the public don't need their morals protected by the courts.
Pine Rivers Magistrate Trevor Morgan denied media and public access to the hearing of the Morayfield man, 26, accused of abducting a girl, 7, from her mother at Westfield North Lakes on Saturday.
It means the full details of the case - every parent's worst nightmare - are being kept from the public, including how police allege the child was lured away from her mother.
That information could be used by parents to protect their own children from similar instances.
It's a case the media would usually be able to cover.
Sterling Free is charged with taking a child for immoral purposes, deprivation of liberty and indecent treatment of a child under 12.
Police allege he drove her to bushland, sexually assaulted her before returning her to the shopping centre.
The media cannot provide any details of his appearance at Pine Rivers Magistrates Court yesterday after Mr Morgan closed the court citing a provision from the Justices Act, first drafted in 1886, that allows the hearings to be closed to the public "in the interests of public morality".
He restricted access to the case after an application by police prosecutor Sergeant Drew Ferguson to do so.
"That's a very broad term but it effectively means the simple concept of proper behaviour and ensuring the correct thing or that the community does observe proper behaviour in a concept of differentiating between right or wrong," Mr Morgan said.
Mr Morgan said he considered the interests of the victim and wished to ensure the alleged child molester would get a fair trial, saying there were exceptional circumstances that called for the court hearing to be closed to the public.
"… It's also important that I take into account the interests of the administration of justice and ensuring that the proceedings proceed according the fundamental principle of fairness and the application of the rule of law and not by a public or social media lynching," he said.
Mr Morgan has previously been publicly reprimanded by Chief Magistrate Ray Rinaudo for making supportive comments during the sentencing of protesters who climbed on the roof of then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's office with a banner labelling him an international criminal, saying he would be proud if is own daughter had done the same thing.
Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston said stopping the public knowing about the case made it look like the courts were protecting an alleged child molester.
"I am not across all of the facts and there might be extenuating circumstances, but if justice is not seen and seen to be done then it's a problem," she said.
"I don't know who we are protecting here. I don't know why we would be protecting the offender if that's what this is all about.
"At the end of the day, this person has allegedly committed a heinous crime against a child and the community has the right to know about this.
"When the system shuts down and we lose transparency, we lose face and we start becoming distrusting."
Ms Johnston called on the judiciary to review the case but Mr Rinaudo yesterday backed Mr Morgan's decision to block access to the court.
"I think what's happened is really strange and it's not helpful to the community in my opinion," she said.
"I think the Chief Magistrate needs to have a look at it and potentially revisit their rules around closing the courts.
"I think it's very, very odd and it doesn't really serve the community expectations of the community."
During the proceedings, Mr Morgan also made reference to reports there had been a three-day delay in making public the alleged abduction.
"Can I also note that there have been comments by politicians criticising the behaviour of the police in not disclosing more information than has been disclosed…" he said.
"I entirely support the position taken by police in not disclosing more information than has been and in my view, less information would have been more helpful than has already been disclosed."
Instead of hearing arguments by lawyers for News Queensland about why media should be present, the magistrate said media did not have standing to make an application to stay, only a right to "contribute to the discussion".
"What puts you in a different category to the ordinary man on the street who wants to come in and sit in on it… or a person who is a blogger and has a following of 75 million people, why can't that person come in and make a similar application to you?" he said.
Veteran criminal lawyer Bill Potts said the "public morality" ruling was very unusual.
"Justice works best when it is open and transparent," he said.
"Courts should be open so that the community can see justice being done.
"In this case the victim's identity could have been suppressed or something of that nature.
"I don't think, in 2018, the public need to have their morals being protected by the courts."
Mr Rinaudo yesterday supported the media ban.
"As he said, there are cases which are exceptional, and he deemed this to be one," he said.
"Again, as the Magistrate said, he needed to be sensitive to the victim's interest, which in this case is very significant."
Mr Rinaudo said the public had a right to know about cases "strongly in the public interest", but said "that must always be subject to other overriding considerations to be determined in each case by the court".
"The matter will be heard in open court, at some level, at the appropriate time as determined by the courts process," he said.
A spokeswoman for Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath said it was a decision for the courts.
Magistrate's controversial past
2014: When sentencing a man who threatened to bomb a job agency after his dole was cut off, Morgan told the man he had no right to "scare the s--- out of everybody". In the sentencing of Jeremy Rutkowski at Beenleigh Magistrates Court, Morgan slammed media reporting of terrorism, calling it "stupid" and saying it was making the public "terrified".
2016: Praised Young Labor activists who climbed on to the roof of Peter Dutton's office with a banner smearing him as an "international criminal". Morgan said: "If one of my daughters was caught doing like you did, I'd probably be very proud of her". He was publicly reprimanded by Chief Magistrate Ray Rinaudo.
2018: Millionaire businessman Lev Mizikovsy won an appeal in the District Court against Morgan's decision he was guilty of a traffic infringement. The court found Morgan, a bike rider, never should have cross-examined Mizikovsky, saying he "relied on his own judicial experience in riding motorcycles" to find the man guilty.