Judge Restricts Access to Bustamante Sentencing
JEFFERSON CITY - Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce released an order Tuesday imposing strict limitations on access to the sentencing of 17-year-old Alyssa Bustamante on Monday. Despite the mass public interest this case has been generated since Bustamante's victim Elizabeth Olten initially vanished in October 2009, the judge has not stated whether any civilians will see the case come to a close first hand.
The hearing will commence Monday at 9 a.m. in Joyce's courtroom on the fourth floor of the Cole County Courthouse. In her order, Joyce states, "...In light of the objections of both parties to media coverage during the sentencing hearing, the Court denies the requests." Pursuant to the Missouri Operating Rule 16, the judge can prohibit any electronic devices in the court room. Thus, no one not present in court will hear the judge declare her official decision about Bustamante's fate at the sentencing. Attorneys predict that will come after final testimony Tuesday. The 12 media seats in the jury box will not be assigned in advance, but rather on a first-come, first-served basis. The judge permits only one sketch artist in court, who is to provide sketches to the entire media pool upon request.
MU Associate Professor of Law Ben Trachtenberg said, "Usually, judges have a lot of discretion on how they run their courtrooms. We have a tradition of open access in courtrooms in the United States, but that doesn't mean the judge has to let in everyone who wants to come in. The lawyers and judges themselves might want to have a smaller crowd just to prevent the case from becoming a circus."
Just two weeks before her scheduled trial, Bustamante pleaded guilty Jan. 10 to second degree murder following a plea agreement offered by Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson. The agreement reduced the charge from first-degree murder to second-degree murder and armed criminal action. The sentence for a second-degree murder charge is 10 to 30 years or life with the possibility of parole after 85 percent of the given sentence has been served.
Until sentencing, Bustamante will remain in an isolation cell at Cole County Jail, where she has lived since authorities transferred her from Morgan County Jail in Aug. 2011.
Calls to Bustamante's defense attorney Donald Catlett and the judge's media spokesperson were unreturned. Prosecuting attorney Mark Richardson declined to comment on the sentencing, but said he will issue a statement when the case concludes.