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Public Trial – Locked Courthouse

State v. David L. Vanness, 2007 WI App 195
For Vanness: Chad Lanning

Issue/Holding: Right to public trial under the 6th amendment was violated when the courthouse was locked (though the courtroom doors themselves remained open) during the defense case and State’s rebuttal:

¶8 The right to a public trial is a basic tenet of our judicial system, Walton v. Briley, 361 F.3d 431, 432 (7th Cir. 2004), rooted in “the principle that justice cannot survive behind walls of silence….” Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 349 (1966).…

¶9 While a public trial is a basic tenet of our judicial system, it is not without exceptions. Walton, 361 F.3d at 433. A trial may be closed only when the test set out in Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501 (1984), has been met. [3] See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 47 (1984). However, where an unjustified closure is trivial, there is also no constitutional violation. See Braun v. Powell, 227 F.3d 908, 919-20 (7th Cir. 2000); Peterson v. Williams, 85 F.3d 39, 42-43 (2nd Cir. 1996). Absent these exceptions, closing a trial to the public violates the constitution.

¶12 … In short, the triviality inquiry goes principally to the length of the closure and what parts of the trial were closed.

¶13 … We also conclude the court’s intent is irrelevant to determining whether the accused’s right to a public trial has been violated by an unjustified closure. Rather, our analysis must focus on the effect of the closing to determine whether a defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial has been violated.

¶16 Here, the courthouse was closed from 4:30 p.m. to about 7 p.m. From 4:24 p.m. to 5:04 p.m., the court was in recess. From 5:04 p.m. to 6:15 p.m., the court was in session, and the jury heard Vanness’s defense and the State’s rebuttal. The court was then in recess until the doors to the courthouse were opened around 7 p.m. Unlike Peterson and Al-Smadi, the closure of over an hour while the court was in session of a one day trial was not “extremely short.” See Peterson, 85 F.3d at 44.

¶17 Additionally, like Walton and Canady, important portions of the trial were closed. The public was denied access to the trial during both Vanness’s defense and the State’s rebuttal, including testimony from two new witnesses. Like the announcement of the verdict, we conclude the accused’s response to the accusations against him or her, and the State’s rebuttal are critical proceedings in criminal trials. See Canady, 126 F.3d at 364. Therefore, the closure was not a trivial violation. Consequently, because Vanness’s constitutional right to a public trial was violated, the order and judgment are reversed and the matter is remanded for a new trial.

Though the court isn’t explicit on the point, it’s clear that violation of the right to public trial is “structural” error, i.e., reversible without resort to harmless error analysis; in effect, “triviality” analysis serves as a structural-error screen in this context—once you get past triviality analysis, reversal is automatic – without any consideration of the impact of the error on the outcome, as the reversal in this case illustrates.


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