Closed courtroom prompts new trial

Feature
Page Number: 
33

From the Fall 1999 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33.


Using a First Amendment freedom of the press framework to analyze a criminal defendant’s claims about his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, Maryland’s highest court held in early October that a trial court did not make the factual findings necessary to justify closing a courtroom during trial of a case involving allegations of sexual crimes against a minor.

The court reversed lower courts in holding that a trial court can only overcome the Sixth Amendment objection to closing a courtroom if the court makes specific findings in support of closure on the record and narrowly tailors an order to protect an overriding state interest.

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Maryland prosecutors charged Robert Carter with rape, second and third degree sexual offenses, attempted sodomy, and child abuse of his stepdaughter, who was 3 years old when the alleged abuse began and 14 years old at the time of trial in Bel Air. The trial judge heard the case without a jury.

After opening statements, the prosecution requested that the trial court clear the courtroom of spectators during the testimony of the alleged victim. Carter objected, arguing that he had a right to a public trial. The court granted the request to clear the courtroom of all members of the public, finding that “the child’s privacy and tender age in this instance certainly outweighs any significance attaching to the public trial.”

The child then testified, and at the conclusion of her questioning from the prosecution, she commented that she was pleased the court had excluded the public from hearing her testimony.

The trial court found Carter guilty of sexual offenses and child abuse. It sentenced him to 105 years of imprisonment, with all but 20 years suspended, and five years of probation upon release. Carter appealed to Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis. He argued that the trial court’s exclusion of all spectators from the courtroom violated his right to a public trial.

The intermediate appellate court affirmed, holding that the trial court had found a specific compelling need that justified clearing the courtroom. Alternatively, the intermediate appellate court held that the victim’s commentary on the closed courtroom bore out the appropriateness of the court’s decision.

Carter then appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals — the highest appellate court in the state — in Annapolis. He argued that the trial court violated his constitutional right to a public trial by clearing the courtroom during the victim’s testimony. He claimed that both the Maryland high court and the U.S. Supreme Court previously had recognized the significance and value of public trials.

The prosecution argued that the trial court struck the correct balance in favor of closing the courtroom when it weighed Carter’s right to a public trial against Maryland’s interest in protecting a minor victim from testifying publicly. The prosecution also argued that the trial court’s ruling did not violate the Sixth Amendment because it closed the courtroom for a limited duration after making adequate findings that such a step was necessary to protect a child sex offense victim.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Carter’s arguments and reversed the lower courts in early October. In a unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Robert Bell began the court’s analysis by recognizing “the fundamental rule that criminal proceedings are presumptively public” and stating that the “right to a public trial, likely a response to the threat posed by secret trials conducted by the Spanish Inquisition and the English Court of Star Chamber, is deeply rooted in the English common law tradition to promote fairness and public confidence in criminal proceedings, upon which our system of justice is based.”

The court noted that the right to a public trial is not absolute, looking to First Amendment principles to explain the “presumption of openness in criminal proceedings, the burden placed upon the party moving for closure, and the appropriate balance to be struck between the defendant’s rights and exclusion of the public.”

It cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s Press-Enterprise cases — which concern the media’s rights of access to judicial proceedings — to state that the party attempting to close a courtroom must show that “higher values” will be infringed by publicity and that closing a courtroom is the only reasonable option for protecting the “higher values.”

The court held that a trial court can only overcome the Sixth Amendment objection to closing a courtroom if the court makes specific findings in support of closure on the record. The court then quoted earlier opinions in noting that a trial court must also write its order when confronted with a Sixth Amendment public trial challenge to a closed courtroom in the same fashion as it would when confronted with a First Amendment freedom of press challenge. The court wrote that “whether objection to closure is made by the defendant or the press, the public may only be constitutionally excluded from a trial pursuant to a narrowly tailored order necessary to protect an overriding state interest.”

Here, the court found that the trial court had not made the requisite specific findings to justify closing the courtroom. For example, the court stated that the trial court did not talk to the victim or anyone else to decide how testifying in public would affect her. The court also said that the trial court did not discuss — in front of a court reporter — alternatives other than closing the courtroom. It concluded that without taking these additional steps, the general request to close a courtroom cannot “overcome the presumption of openness.”

The high court also found that the intermediate appellate court’s alternative rationale — that the victim’s testimony supported the decision to close the courtroom — could not withstand review, saying that an appellate court cannot substitute its own after-the-fact justification in place of the factual findings that the trial court should have made on the record after a hearing.

The court ruled that the trial judge’s error in closing the courtroom required a new trial. (Carter v. Maryland)