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Exclusion of family from jury selection violated criminal defendant's public trial right

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A judge erred when he excluded a criminal defendant’s family from jury selection, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases recently…

A judge erred when he excluded a criminal defendant’s family from jury selection, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases recently ruled.

The state Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the child sexual assault case to the lower court for a new trial, finding that the error violated defendant Jeffrey Steadman’s constitutional right to a public trial. A jury convicted Steadman of aggravated sexual assault of a child younger than 14 and indecency with a child.

The issue of restricting access to jury selection often arises in the context of media coverage of criminal trials and implicates the public’s well-established First Amendment right to attend and monitor the voir dire process. But a decision to close jury selection also affects a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the public’s presumptive right to attend voir dire but did so by relying on the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. A criminal defendant’s constitutional right to an open jury selection process must surely be as extensive as the public’s right of access under the First Amendment, the high Court ruled in Presley v. Georgia.

According to the Presley Court, “trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials” — a standard the Texas judge did not meet, the appellate court held.

In that case, the judge prohibited Steadman’s mother, stepfather, wife and another family member from entering the courtroom during jury selection because there were only enough seats in the gallery for each member of the jury pool. The judge also denied a request from Steadman’s lawyer that the family members be permitted to observe voir dire from seats in the jury box, although he allowed the prosecutor’s investigator to sit there during the proceeding.

Specifically, the judge believed that the proximity of Steadman’s family members to potential jurors would "contaminate" the panel because its members would be uncomfortable and reluctant to fully express their feelings, attitudes and possible prejudices during voir dire, the opinion said. And because the trial was expected to be “emotionally charged,” the judge believed that security concerns were heightened in the case, it stated.

Although the central jury room on the first floor of the courthouse was significantly larger than the courtroom, the judge concluded that moving the proceeding to that area after the panel had been seated could cause delay and that use of the jury room, which was not configured as a courtroom, as a venue for voir dire would be inconvenient, according to the appellate court’s opinion.

The judge said he did not seek to close voir dire “but only to control the courtroom arrangement for security and decorum purposes,” it stated.

After his conviction, Steadman asked the court for a new trial, reiterating his claim that the exclusion of his family from voir dire was a constitutional error. The judge denied the motion, and Steadman appealed, during which time the Supreme Court issued its Presley decision. Although Steadman’s attorney notified the intermediate appellate court of that ruling, it failed to cite the decision and affirmed the lower court’s denial of a new trial, holding that its interest in maintaining the security of the courtroom sufficiently supported closure of jury selection.

The higher appellate court disagreed, ruling last week that the trial court failed to satisfy its dual obligations of identifying interests sufficient to override a defendant’s right to a public trial and considering all reasonable alternatives to closure.

Although the trial court’s concerns about jury-panel contamination and courtroom security were “substantial,” it never articulated any substantive “threat” to either of these interests in this case and failed to supply “findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine” that closure of the courtroom during [Steadman’s] voir dire was warranted,” the court said, quoting the Presley Court’s discussion of the procedures trial courts must follow before restricting public attendance at criminal trials.

The Texas court also found the trial judge’s consideration of alternatives insufficient to support closure of the jury selection, namely because he ultimately dismissed the options because they would compromise ordinary courtroom-security measures, cause delay or simply be inconvenient.

The judge also failed to consider an alternative that would have solved both the jury-contamination and courtroom-security issues — dividing the panel into smaller groups — and did not consider instructing prospective jurors to not engage or interact with audience members, the appellate court said. The judge also could have used the 11 seats in the jury box for either panel or family members, it added.

“That a trial court can reasonably discount some alternatives . . . does not insulate it from Presley’s mandate that it be able to sensibly reject ‘all reasonable alternatives’ before it can exclude the public from voir dire proceedings,” the court held.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Covering courts: jury selection (voir dire)

· The First Amendment Handbook: Introduction — Criminal proceedings

· The First Amendment Handbook: You have a right to oppose secrecy — What you should do