Judge denies right to public trial resulting in Massachusetts Appeals Court overturning conviction

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals vacated a conviction in the case of Commonwealth v. Wolcott when the defendant was denied her right to a public trial as a result of the trial judge closing the courtroom. The Wolcott decision is an important decision as it emphasizes that Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers should object any time a judge closes the courtroom or denies access to a courtroom during any part of a trial. Additionally, the court’s decision invalidates the practice of some judge in Massachusetts criminal trials closing the courtroom during jury selection, limiting access during closing statements and jury instructions.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a public trial. In the Wolcott case, defense counsel sought access for members of the public during jury selection. The judge denied that request stating that as space became available the public could take those seats. The defense counsel moved for a mistrial which was denied by the trial judge. The court found that the trial judge did not announce that when space became available that members of the public could enter the courtroom. The judge refused to allow members of the public into the courtroom and court officers asked members of the public to leave the courtroom without notifying members of the public that as space became available they could reenter the courtroom. Accordingly, the Appeals Court found that the judge closed the courtroom.

The Massachusetts Appeals court reviewed the case of Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984), from the United States Supreme Court addressing when a full closure of the courtroom can be justified under the United States Constitution. The Waller Court used a four part analysis:

1. The party seeking to close the court must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced.
2. The closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest;
3. The trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding;
4. the court must make adequate findings to support closure of the courtroom.

The United States Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of public trials in the case of Presley v. Georgia, 130 S.Ct. 721 (2010), where the court underscored that the right to a public trial is rooted in both the Sixth Amendment and is also guaranteed by the First Amendment. In Presley, the Court was also faced with a judge that denied the public access during jury selection and found that the judge did not consider whether there were reasonable alternatives to closing the court during jury selection. In applying the Presley case, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals found that the jury verdict had to be set aside based on the failure to provide the defendant a public trial and held that because the violation is a structural error, that the court would not apply harmless error analysis, but would vacate the conviction, providing the defendant with a new trial.

Michael DelSignore is a criminal defense lawyer in Massachusetts, representing individuals charged with felony and misdemeanor offenses throughout Massachusetts. If you are charged with a criminal offense, you should call Attorney DelSignore, so he can advise you on the consequences of a conviction, the chance to obtain a not guilty verdict before a judge or jury, the strength of the case against you and can answer any of your questions regarding the court process. Attorney DelSignore can be reached at 508-455-4755 or by email.

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