Wednesday, February 17, 2010

SJC Affirms Public's Right to View Jury Selection

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision today underscoring the right of the public and the press to sit in on jury selection in criminal cases. The opinion, Commonwealth v. Cohen, concludes that even a partial closure of the courtroom -- with some family members and non-parties allowed in -- can violate both the First Amendment rights of the public and press and the Sixth Amendment rights of the defendant.
The public trial right applies to jury selection proceedings ... which are "a crucial part of any criminal case." ... At that stage, "the primacy of the accused's right [to a public trial] is difficult to separate from the right of everyone in the community to attend the voir dire which promotes fairness." ... The "sure knowledge that anyone is free to attend gives assurance that established procedures are being followed and that deviations will become known." ... Throughout a trial, an open court room "enhances both the basic fairness of the criminal trial and the appearance of fairness so essential to public confidence in the system." ... Thus, courts recognize a "strong presumption in favor of a public trial," ... "overcome only by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest."
The case arose out of jury empanelment in the criminal prosecution of David M. Cohen, an attorney and former Stoughton, Mass., police sergeant. On the fourth day of empanelment, Cohen's defense counsel noticed a sign on the courtroom door that said, "Jury empanelment. Do not enter." After learning that the sign had been on the door throughout the empanelment process, the lawyer moved for a mistrial. The judge denied the motion. The lawyer repeated his motion for a mistrial later the same day, after learning that members of the public were removed from the courtroom. Again, the judge denied the motion.

"The defendant has thus established that the jury selection procedures used in this case violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial; he has also shown that he did not waive this right," the SJC concluded. Finding that there would be no other way to remedy the violation, the court ordered that Cohen be granted a new trial.

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