The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Jordan, holding that the trial court erred in refusing to permit the defendant’s family members to be present in the courtroom during selection. Because the trial court did not have sufficient reason to believe that the defendant’s family members were involved in any witness intimidation, the trial court violated the defendant’s right to a public trial by barring the family members from the courtroom. Therefore, the defendant will receive a new trial.
The Facts of Commonwealth v. Jordan
In Jordan, the defendant was arrested and charged with Conspiracy, Attempted Murder, and other related charges for an incident which took place in Philadelphia. The defendant chose to proceed by way of jury trial, and he was eventually convicted by the jury and sentenced to 37.5 - 100 years’ incarceration. Although the defendant appealed on the sufficiency of the evidence, the Superior Court rejected this portion of the appeal.
More interestingly, however, the defendant also appealed the trial court’s order barring his family members from remaining in the courtroom during voir dire (jury selection). During jury selection, the defense attorney specifically objected to the defendant’s family being excluded from jury selection. He argued on the record that they did not cause any problems the previous day and that jury selection is part of the trial, and the law requires that criminal trials be public.
After the defense lawyer objected, the judge stated that on the previous day, a large group of people barreled into the courtroom in an intimidating manner. The judge did not know who they were, but she somehow knew that they were there on behalf of the defendants. The judge further stated that witnesses voiced their concerns about their safety. In previous cases, the judge had had problems with jurors feeling intimidated, and so the judge decided to bar everyone, including the defendant’s family, from watching jury selection.
In response, defense counsel argued that the defendant’s mother was in her mid-50’s and his step-father was in his mid-60’s and that they had not been a part of whatever problem had occurred the day before. Therefore, he requested that they be allowed to stay in the courtroom. The court denied the request and prohibited the defendant’s mother and step-father from remaining in the courtroom during jury selection.
The Right to a Public Trial
Following his conviction, the defendant appealed. In addition to arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction, he also argued that the judge violated his Sixth Amendment right by barring his family members from the courtroom during jury selection. Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has a right to a public trial. The right is for the benefit of the accused and ensures “that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned, and that the presence of interested spectators may keep his triers keenly alive to a sense of their responsibility and to the importance of their functions.” In previous cases, the United States Supreme Court has held that the right to a public trial includes the right to have the public attend voir dire and view the jury selection.
Can the Judge Close the Courtroom to the Public in a Criminal Case?
Although the general rule is that a criminal trial should be public, the trial judge may close the courtroom under limited circumstances. In order to close a courtroom, the judge must properly find that:
1) there is an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,
2) the closure is no broader than necessary to protect that interest,
3) there are no reasonable alternatives to closure, and
4) the court can make findings adequate to support the closure.
If these four requirements are not met, then the judge may not close the courtroom and must allow members of the public to view all portions of a criminal trial, including jury selection.
Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that “where trial courts perceive a threat to the orderly administration of justice in their courtrooms by an unmanageable public, they may always place reasonable restrictions on access to the courtroom, so long as the basic guarantees of fairness are preserved.” This means that a trial judge may be able to close a courtroom in response to legitimate security or intimidation concerns. However, even when overriding interests warrant closure, if the parties or the press petition the court to admit a limited number of specified individuals, the court must consider the request and place on the record the reasons for denying the request. This enables the appellate court to examine whether exclusion was justified.
In this case, the Superior Court rejected the trial court’s reasoning and found that the court failed to follow the above rules. Although the court may have been justified in barring large groups from the courtroom during jury selection due to intimidation concerns, the court failed to give any real consideration to whether allowing just the defendant’s parents to remain in the room would alleviate the intimidation concerns.
An exclusion of the general public does not necessarily warrant the same treatment as the exclusion of the defendant’s close family members or the press. Therefore, if the mother and father had participated in the previous day’s disturbance, the trial court may have been justified in excluding them. However, the judge did not make any findings as to whether the defendant’s mother and stepfather had done anything. Instead, the court unreasonably failed to consider whether permitting just them to remain would be a reasonable alternative to barring everyone from the room.
Improper Denial of the Right to a Public Trial Requires a New Trial
In most cases, a defendant who appeals a legal error made by the trial judge will not receive a new trial unless the defendant suffered some kind of prejudice as a result of the legal error. This means that the Commonwealth usually has the right to argue harmless error, which is the idea that a conviction may be upheld if the Commonwealth can show beyond a reasonable doubt that even without the mistake, the defendant would have still been convicted.
However, there are certain types of errors that automatically require a new trial without a consideration of prejudice. This type of error is called a “structural error” or “structural defect.” The violation of the right to a public trial constitutes a structural error that will always invalidate the conviction. In this case, the defendant’s family members were excluded from the courtroom in violation of his right to a public trial without any real consideration of whether that was absolutely necessary to avoid witness intimidation. Therefore, the court committed a structural error, and the defendant will receive a new trial.
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