Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Court of Appeal Holds:
Exclusion of Public From Voir Dire Requires Reversal
Finds Justification Offered by Judge—That All 50 Seats Were Needed for Prospective Jurors—Doesn’t Suffice; Error Was ‘Structural’
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The conviction of a man on two counts of robbery has been overturned by the Fourth District Court of Appeal because the judge barred the public during voir dire.
“Since the wrongful exclusion of the public under these circumstances is structural error under the Sixth Amendment,” Justice Richard D. Huffman of Div. One wrote, “the convictions must be reversed.”
Huffman’s opinion, which was not certified for publication, came Friday in People v. James, D071081. The judge who cleared the courtroom of spectators was Daniel G. Lamborn, who supervises the courthouse in El Cajon.
His reason for barring the public from jury selection was that all 50 seats were needed for prospective jurors.
The opinion quotes the lawyer for defendant Kyle James as saying:
“This is just a quick issue. My client does have a friend here. It’s my understanding the Court’s policy [is that] the public is not allowed in during jury selection?”
Lamborn responded in the affirmative and the lawyer declared:
“My client has a constitutional right to a public trial, so I’m requesting that his friend be allowed to stay in the courtroom during jury selection.”
“That request will be denied. His friend can be present during all phases of opening statement, presentation of evidence, but we don’t have the room nor potential security issues to allow for anyone other than the 50 panel members.”
That reason for exclusion wasn’t good enough, the appeals court found.
Supreme Court Opinion
Huffman pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Presley v. Georgia where it was held that exclusion of the public from voir dire is structural error requiring reversal.
There, the majority held “that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extends to the voir dire of prospective jurors” and while there could be exceptions, “trial courts are required to consider alternatives to closure.”
“While it is possible a circumstance could arise where temporary closure might be justified, such is not the case here. Plainly, there was a policy in place for the selection of juries that called for exclusion of the public. Nothing in the record explains why the court must call in 50 jurors as opposed to perhaps 40. There may be cases where a defendant has no objection to closure during jury selection. However, as in this case, a trial court may not override a defendant’s request for a public trial based on a policy of convenience or efficiency.
“We recognize the pressure on trial courts with limited resources and limited facilities, however some accommodation could have been made here to preserve an important constitutional right and allow the court to proceed in an appropriate manner. On this record, there was no valid justification for the denial of the defendant’s request to exercise a constitutional right.”
James, a recidivist, had been sentenced to a prison term of 25 years to life plus 13 years.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company