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Closure of jury selection prompts order for new murder trial

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Closure of jury selection prompts order for new murder trial

  • The Supreme Court of Washington granted a new trial to a convicted killer because the trial judge refused to allow the defendant’s family and other members of the public to watch while a jury was selected.

Nov. 16, 2004 — A trial judge’s decision to bar spectators from a courtroom during jury selection violated a defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial, requiring a new trial for the convicted murderer, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington has ruled.

The lawyer for Christopher A. Orange, accused of murdering one person and shooting two others at a gas station in Pasco, Wash., in 1994, had asked the trial judge to let members of Orange’s family to sit in the courtroom while a jury was selected during his 1995 trial. The judge denied the request, saying there was only room in the courtroom for the 98 prospective jurors. He also cited an unspecified concern for “security.”

But those reasons were not compelling enough to warrant shutting out the public, the state’s high court ruled Nov. 10. Additionally, the trial judge failed to use the least restrictive means to address these concerns, did not adequately weigh the competing interest in openness, and failed to enter factual findings to support his decision — steps all mandated by a well-established legal test for closing courtrooms laid out in prior Washington cases.

“Our unanimous decisions in [those cases] prescribed and applied the constitutional requirements for closure so clearly and emphatically that approving the trial court’s actions in this case would undermine 20 years of consistency on this legal issue,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority.

Six Washington newspaper groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief, urging the high court to create a “bright-line rule” that concern for overcrowding can never justify closing a courtroom, “rather than forcing the press and the public always to file briefs proposing . . . alternatives” to closure.

The court did not draw such a line. Instead, it cited the judge’s failure to take other measures — such as setting aside seats for the press or allowing spectators to enter the courtroom as excused jurors exited — to show that the closure order was not “narrowly tailored” as required under the law.

Attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, who represented the media organizations, told the Associated Press that the Washington Supreme Court’s decision would have a “huge impact” because closed trials are “not a rare occurrence.”

The opinion forces the retrial of a 10-year-old murder case. Although the court acknowledged that a new trial would “undoubtedly” burden the families and friends of the victims as well as the community at large, it stated “our duty under the constitution is to ensure that, absent a closure order narrowly drawn to protect a clearly identified compelling interest, a trial court may not exclude the public or press from any stage of a criminal trial.”

Franklin County prosecutor Steve Lowe accused the Supreme Court of trying to avoid being perceived as “anti-victim” by delaying its decision until after the November election of two of its justices — a charge that Owens denied, according to the Associated Press.

(In the Matter of the Personal Restraint Petition of Christopher A. Orange, Media Counsel: Michele Earl-Hubbard, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Marshall J. Nelson, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Seattle) KK

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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