Closure of juvenile testimony insufficient for new trial
NORTH DAKOTA–In early April, the North Dakota Supreme Court in Bismarck affirmed a jury verdict despite a defendant’s challenge that the trial court violated his right to a public trial by clearing the courtroom during the testimony of a juvenile witness.
The high court upheld the closure order of District Judge Ralph Erickson in Fargo because the record showed that he weighed the competing interests of the defendant and the public, held hearings out of the jury’s presence, and delayed ruling until the media could be heard.
Barry Caesar Garcia, who was a minor at the time of his trial, appealed the verdict finding him guilty of murder and aggravated assault and sentencing him to life imprisonment without parole for a 1995 shooting in West Fargo, claiming that the courtroom closure violated his right to a public trial.
Under local court rules, the trial received “expanded media coverage,” including the presence in the courtroom of a camera and an audio feed. Jamie Guerrero, who was arrested along with Garcia in connection with the crime, agreed to testify for the state if the court terminated the use of the television camera and audio feed and excluded from the courtroom all spectators except for the families of the defendant and victim.
Guerrero’s lawyer told the court that his client was “intimidated” by the audience. The prosecution supported Guerrero’s request to close the courtroom, which was opposed by Garcia and the press.
Erickson granted Guerrero’s motion, based upon his “inherent power” to control the courtroom, and allowed a single pool representative, chosen by the media, to remain in the courtroom. (North Dakota v. Garcia; Media Counsel: Patrick Weir, Fargo)