Violation of Right to Public Trial Earns Defendant New Trial

August 18, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on August 18, 2014 6:34 PM |

In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a superior court judge's decision that the closure of the courtroom for the general questioning of the venire violated a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

In Commonwealth v. Timothy White, the defendant, a former state police sergeant, had allegedly stole drugs from the state police evidence room and sold them for profit. The defendant was charged with trafficking in cocaine, larceny over $250, and conspiracy to traffick in cocaine. Due to the media attention the case attracted, the defendant's counsel requested individual voir dire of prospective jurors. Unbeknownst to the defendant or the judge, the courtroom was closed to the public for the first phase of the juror selection process, based upon the courtroom lacking sufficient space to seat all members of the venire.

After a jury convicted him, the defendant moved for a new trial, claiming that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated by the closure of the courtroom to the public. The superior court granted to defendant's request, and the Commonwealth appealed, asserting that any such closure was de minimis. The Commonwealth claimed that the courtroom closure was so trivial and insignificant, based upon the short duration of time during which the courtroom was closed off, such that it did not violate the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The Appeals Courts disagreed.

A defendant's right to a public trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. This right also extends to the voir dire of prospective jurors. The Appeals Court reviewed the totality of the situation, and considered the importance of a public presence during the jury selection process. The court observed that a closure during jury selection undermines the values of openness because the public loses the opportunity for assurance that those chosen to decide the defendant's guilt or innocence will do so fairly. Further, public presence encourages potential jurors to respond truthfully to questions regarding their biases, and encourages lawyers to perform their functions more responsibly. In consideration of the substantial media attention to the case, the presence of the public played a substantial role in ensuring that the defendant was afforded a fair trial.

Accordingly, the Appeals Court affirmed the trial court's decision to vacate the defendant's convictions and afford him a new trial.