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Closing of Brooklyn courtroom to public, defendant's wife upheld

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Closing of Brooklyn courtroom to public, defendant’s wife upheld

  • A judge did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial by excluding members of the public, including his wife, from the courtroom when the prosecutor’s chief witness testified in a criminal trial.

Jan. 15, 2003 — A state trial judge did not violate Salih Sevencan’s Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial when he closed a Brooklyn courtroom to members of the public, including Sevencan’s wife, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) ruled Dec. 30.

Sevencan was convicted of weapons possession and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from his participation in a scheme to import heroin from Turkey. The chief witness against Sevencan was an undercover police officer. During the officer’s testimony, Justice Edward Rappaport sealed the courtroom and excluded members of the public, including the defendant’s wife.

In applying for a writ of habeas corpus, Sevencan argued that the court’s refusal to allow his wife to attend the criminal trial violated the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which states that such a writ shall not be granted unless the adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Relying upon U.S. Supreme Court precedent set forth in Waller v. Georgia, the Second Circuit found that the trial court comported with the test allowing closure because the safety of the undercover officer constituted an “overriding interest” that would be prejudiced by an open hearing, and the closure was “no broader than necessary to protect that interest” as it was solely for the officer’s testimony. The court also considered whether it had reasonable alternatives to closure, and made written findings in support of its decision.

In a separate case, Yung v. Walker, the Second Circuit found that Waller requires a “heightened showing” before excluding family members.

“Because the state trial court in the instant case clearly considered the familial relationship in determining whether to exempt Sevencan’s wife from a properly entered limited closure order its decision to exclude Sevencan’s wife” did not amount to an unreasonable application of the law, the appellate court held.

Justice Rosemary Pooler, one of three judges on the Second Circuit panel, disagreed with the court’s application of Yung to the instant case. While Pooler agreed with the ultimate outcome of the decision to exclude Sevencan’s wife, she did not believe that the trial court established the “heightened showing” required by Yung.

While the court’s decision has no direct implications for the media, it reestablished the conditions needed for court closure.

(Sevencan v. Herbert) ST

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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