NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON · Secret Courts · July 5, 2006
New trial ordered after improper closure of courtroom
July 5, 2006 · The pretrial closure of a Washington state courtroom, requested by a codefendant in a drug case, violated the other defendant’s state constitutional right to a public trial, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.
Suspected drug dealer Ricko Easterling will be tried again in King County Superior Court where he was convicted for unlawful delivery of cocaine in 2003. Initially, he and defendant Anthony Jackson were being tried together. During a pretrial hearing, Jackson’s attorney asked the courtroom be closed so Jackson could discuss in Easterling’s absence a plea agreement and a motion to separate Jackson’s trial from Easterling’s.
In the closed courtroom, Jackson agreed to testify against Easterling and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, according to the high court’s written opinion.
The courtroom closure warranted overturning his conviction because he could not defend himself at the closed hearing, the unanimous court ruled in overturning the Court of Appeals in Seattle, which had affirmed Easterling’s conviction.
The state argued that because the discussions in the closed courtroom were about Jackson and not Easterling, Easterling’s conviction should not be affected.
The Supreme Court also said the trial court’s failure to weigh several factors, such as objections of those present and the public’s interest in the trial, violated the state constitution’s guarantee to a public trial.
The court relied heavily on its previous interpretations of the state constitution, “which require trial courts to strictly adhere to the well-established guidelines for closing a courtroom and upon public policy . . . which favors keeping criminal judicial proceedings open to the public unless there is a compelling interest warranting closure,” Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander wrote for the court.
“Our holding is further dictated by our interest in protecting the transparency and fairness of criminal trials by ensuring that all stages of courtroom proceedings remain open unless the trial court identifies a compelling interest to be served by closure,” Alexander wrote.
(State of Washington v. Easterling) — HB