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Attorney for Mystic hotel attack victim denied access to criminal court discussions

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A New London Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that the attorney for hotel clerk Crystal Caldwell would not be allowed to participate in closed-door, pretrial discussions of the criminal cases of her alleged attackers. 

A pretrial hearing in the case of Philip Sarner and Emily Orbay did not go forward as scheduled Tuesday, as attorneys argued who would be allowed to log on to the virtual hearing. New London Superior Court Judge Edward O'Hanlan denied Attorney John Strafaci's motion to be present during virtual pretrial proceedings for the New York couple charged with attacking his client Caldwell while she was working at a Mystic hotel last summer.

Caldwell, of Groton, was beaten and suffered injuries to her head, eye, wrist, hand, back and ribs. The attack, which was captured on surveillance video, was determined to be racially motivated.

Generally, these pretrial discussions take place in the judge's chambers and involve a prosecutor, defense attorney, the judge and sometimes a victim's advocate.

Strafaci had filed a motion arguing that he should be allowed to participate in order to represent his client after defense attorneys for Sarner and Orbay objected to Strafaci being allowed to log on to the virtual hearing. The judge denied the motion — with Sarner, Orbay and Caldwell all present in the courtroom — citing state Supreme Court precedent, Strafaci said.

Strafaci said he was disappointed in the ruling. "It's disappointing that Crystal is going to not be represented at the judicial pretrial," he said, adding he hopes for more transparency as his client's case moves through the court.

"This has been a case where unfortunately the judicial system, beginning with Stonington Police Department, has not treated her fairly. And for Crystal and her family and other people who have supported her, I don't see that this is a good way to give them confidence that the case is going to be handled fairly if, essentially, discussions take place behind closed doors and her legal representative isn't able to see what goes on firsthand," he said.

Sarner faces charges of first and second-degree assault and intimidation based on bias. He also was charged in August with second-degree harassment for allegedly making harassing phone calls to Strafaci. Orbay is charged with two counts of third-degree assault and intimidation based on bias.

The state's attorney's office offered a plea deal to both Sarner and Orbay in April. If both plead guilty to all charges, Sarner will be sentenced to nine years in prison, suspended after five years served, with three years of probation. Orbay will be sentenced to six years in prison, suspended after two years served. The offers have not yet been accepted or rejected.

Sarner and Orbay are scheduled to appear in court next on Sept. 15, according to Strafaci.

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