A Georgia man yesterday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit his conviction for drug trafficking on the grounds that the public was improperly excluded from the jury selection hearing, called voir dire.
In the case, State v. Presley, the trial court judge excluded the defendant Eric Presley’s uncle and other members of the public from the courtroom during jury selection. The judge reasoned that “[t]here just isn’t space for them to sit” in the “very small courtrooms,” because “witnesses and relatives cannot sit in the audience beside the potential jurors.”
The judge also ordered the public to vacate the entire sixth floor of the courthouse – suggesting they visit the snack bar – because “jurors will be all out in the hallway in a few moments.”
Presley objected to the court’s action, and later asked for a new trial on the grounds that the court improperly excluded the public from jury selection.
On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed that the public has a presumptive right of access to jury selection in a criminal case, and noted that Presley asked the trial whether “some accommodation could not be made” for seating both the public and prospective jurors. But a majority of the court found that Presley should have gone further, offering the trial court specific alternatives to excluding the public.
Two justices dissented. “A room that is so small that it cannot accommodate the public is a room that is too small to accommodate a constitutional criminal trial,” wrote Leah Ward Sears, then the state court’s chief justice.
Presley asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case yesterday, arguing that the state courts improperly “approved the routine closure of voir dire to the public” without the “case-specific findings” required to overcome the presumption of public access to criminal trials.