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Some fear St. Paul's rape trial will set stage for future cases

New Hampshire Sunday News

August 29. 2015 9:44PM

Nathaniel Kibby of Gorham listens during his arraignment in Conway District Court on July 29, 2014. He goes on trial in March, accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and imprisoning a 15-year-old girl. Concerns have been raised about protecting the girl's identity. (AP/Charles Krupa, Pool)

A New Hampshire victim advocate fears that the “media circus” that surrounded the St. Paul's School rape case is a portent of what's coming when the alleged kidnapper and abuser of a North Country girl goes on trial next March.

And Amanda Grady Sexton of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence is calling on the court, media and advocates to figure out how to best protect the young victim during that trial.

“This is the type of case that is something you've seen in a horror movie,” she said. “And so we've got till March to get this right.”

Nathaniel Kibby, 34, of Gorham, is charged with kidnapping a 14-year-old girl at gunpoint in Conway on Oct. 9, 2013, and keeping her prisoner for nine months.

In more than 200 indictments, including 80 counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, authorities allege that Kibby sexually assaulted and tortured the girl in his trailer and in an outside storage container.

Kibby was arrested eight days after the girl returned home on July 20, 2014. He has pleaded not guilty and has been held on $1 million cash bond.

The judge in the Concord rape case, Larry M. Smukler, also will preside over the Kibby trial, which will be held in Belknap County Superior Court in Laconia. Jury selection is set to begin March 21.

Grady Sexton said the court and media alike have to do a better job of protecting minors involved in such cases. While the New Hampshire Union Leader did not publish the victim's name in the St. Paul's case, Grady Sexton said other media outlets did so.

And, she said, “My worst fear is that what has happened to the victim in this case will happen to her (the kidnapping victim) as well: her name or image will be either broadcast or printed in error.”

“Or something even more likely to happen is there will be identifying information that you typically wouldn't think of because she's from a small town.”

She said it's up to media here to lead the way.

“I think that New Hampshire has an obligation to set the tone for the rest of the national media in terms of what we expect for journalistic integrity,” she said. “I think we should come together and decide and share what our expectations are for each other.”

One possible forum for that discussion is the court's Committee on the Judiciary and the Media (CJM).

William Chapman, a Concord attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, has served on that committee since its creation in 2002. He plans to suggest that the CJM take up some of the issues raised by the upcoming Kibby trial at its next meeting this fall.

“The committee has generated over its life a couple of best practices or guidelines for how to deal with certain things, and it could be that something like that might come out of it,” he said.

Chapman said he was offended by some of the coverage of the St. Paul's trial, which attracted intense coverage by national news and even entertainment outlets.

“I just think it's been over the top, and I can't imagine what the lives of these two young people are going to be like,” Chapman said.

Graphic details

In the upcoming Kibby trial, it's not only protecting the identity of the victim that concerns Chapman. He also worries about what intensive coverage of what is expected to be graphic testimony will mean for the young girl in her community, where an intensive search was launched after she disappeared.

“If you've got a lot of graphic reporting, it's not about some abstract person,” he said.

Grady Sexton said the court needs to do more to manage such trials as well.

She noted in a typical trial, family members of the victim and accused sit on opposite sides of the courtroom. But because there were so many media outlets attending the Concord trial, she said, the families often had to sit together.

“I don't think that that strikes the right balance,” she said. “I don't think you should have a victim's grandmother climbing over the respondent's family in order to get to their seat.”

“I think the press absolutely has a right to be in that room, but I think that right should not be greater than the rights of both families to have access to the court system. And that is what we're doing when we have a courtroom that is not properly set up.”

In the end, she said, “People were not prepared for the level of media circus that descended upon the little city of Concord.”

That's why it's important to start preparing for the Kibby trial now, she said.

Media outlets here stopped using the name of the alleged kidnap victim after the indictments — and the disturbing nature of the allegations — were released.

Prior to that, her name was widely circulated as her family and friends searched for the missing child.

Grady Sexton said the girl's name may be known here, but not elsewhere. “The best that we can do for her, as a juvenile who has been exposed to some of the most horrific acts that we have seen in this state ... is to give her the chance for anonymity,” she said. “She has the right to start over.”

This is all relatively new ground, she said. “Because of the changing nature of media coverage and the growing sort of 24/7 news networks and social media, it's time to check in again about what we think in New Hampshire.”

Because when the trial ends, she said, the national media are “going to pick up and leave and go on to the next big story.”

“But we all who are working on this here in New Hampshire are going to have to face each other and the neighbors and the families of these victims. That might drive us to do things differently.”

“So let's set the tone.”

Asked what the best-case scenario would be for the young victim in the upcoming kidnapping trial, Chapman replied: “The case is pleaded out.”

“Then there's no trial,” he said. “And she doesn't have to endure whatever it is that is out there.”

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