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Rape hearing postponed

LAWRENCEVILLE - A probable cause hearing for a 17-year-old student charged with rape quickly dissolved Friday into a courtroom circus involving First Amendment rights.

Assistant District Attorney Steven Fern wanted a judge to bar the media from the first public hearing for John Luke Walker - a Brookwood High School sophomore charged with raping and molesting a 14-year-old girl.

Fern planned to enter the names of juvenile witnesses at the 1:30 p.m. hearing, which he didn't want the broadcast and print media on hand privy to. He felt the identity of the witnesses could be compromised, he said.

"There's concern over pretrial publicity," Fern said.

Walker's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, planned to request bond for her client, who has remained in the Gwinnett County Jail for nine days.

Instead, Magistrate Judge Robert Waller postponed the hearing until sometime Tuesday, following an 8 a.m. hearing between prosecutors, the defense and the judge "to discuss whether the media should be allowed," Waller said.

Waller's concerns are three-fold and complicated, he said. The judge is "mindful of protecting the confidentiality of juveniles" but is "very concerned" that Walker could remain in jail without bond. He also feels the media's access to courtroom proceedings, protected by the First Amendment, should be upheld, he said.

"I really feel for this young man being held without bond, but there's an important principal involved," Waller said.

Waller's ruling assured that Walker - who has no prior convictions, according to his attorney - will remain in jail at least four more days.

"The state's motion is going to keep him in jail longer than he should be," Bernstein argued. "I don't think there's a legal reason to prolong the investigation."

Walker's parents spoke to reporters outside the jail Friday, expressing displeasure with the postponed hearing.

"My son is innocent," said David Walker. "We were expecting today he'd be released and he could go home."

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said requests for media banishment from Georgia courtrooms are nothing new.

Manheimer referenced a Georgia Supreme Court ruling called Rule 22, which states reporters and photographers "will be accorded full right of access to court proceedings ... so long as it is done without detracting from the dignity and decorum of the court."

Discrepancies in courtroom access happen frequently enough that Manheimer is currently penning a book on the subject, she said.

"There's a strong presumption of open courtrooms in Georgia," said Manheimer. "Every time I hear about a move for closure (of the courtroom), we become concerned."

Bernstein, the attorney, has consistently downplayed the charges against Walker, a backup wide-receiver and defensive back on Brookwood's powerhouse football team. On Friday she called him "an excellent athlete" and "child of faith."

Police charged Walker last week with rape and child molestation, alleging he forced a 14-year-old girl into sexual acts after a party on Feb. 17.

Investigators said Walker let a group of teens into a home on Fawnbrook Court in Lilburn, where he was caring for the homeowners' dog while they were out of town.

A neighbor called police to report the teens as prowlers. Police found the 14-year-old girl unconscious inside the home and sent her for treatment at an area hospital. Police have declined to discuss how she became unconscious or her relationship with Walker.

Walker was arrested at school March 5.

If convicted of rape, Walker would serve a minimum 25-year sentence and be required to register as a sex offender for life, his attorney said.

Bernstein also represented Genarlow Wilson in his infamous child molestation case. The Georgia teen served three years in prison for having consentual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.

"If we've learned anything from Genarlow Wilson," Bernstein said Friday, "it's don't prejudge."