Can a Judge Prevent a Member of Family from Attending My Criminal Trial?

June 3rd, 2020 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution affords anyone charged with a crime the right to a “speedy and public trial.” We often take the “public” aspect of a trial for granted. After all, court proceedings are generally open to the public. But there are exceptions to this rule. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a trial judge may close their courtroom if there are “competing rights or interests” that outweigh the defendant’s right to a public trial, such as “security” or “preventing the disclosure of non-public information.”

Appeals Court Reverses Drug Conviction Due to Sixth Amendment Violation

If a judge improperly closes a trial, however, that may be grounds for reversing a defendant’s criminal conviction. Just such a thing recently happened here in Texas. In Williams v. State, the Texas Fourth District Court of Appeals in San Antonio held a trial court acted improperly when it prevented a member of the defendant’s family from attending the trial.

Here is some background. The defendant was charged with delivering cocaine. As part of its case, the prosecution called a “confidential informant” as a witness. Prosecutors asked the judge to exclude a member of the defendant’s family from the courtroom out of concern this person would “intimidate” their witness. The judge agreed the family member’s presence would “protect the confidential informant from intimidation that would traumatize him or render him unable to testify.” The family member was still permitted to view the courtroom proceedings from a live video stream.

The jury ultimately convicted the defendant and sentenced her to 20 years in prison. On appeal, she argued the exclusion of her family member during the confidential informant’s testimony violated her Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The Court of Appeals agreed and ordered a new trial.

In this case, there was no doubt the judge “partially closed” the defendant’s trial by excluding a specific person. And while the prosecution and the trial judge thought this exclusion was necessary to protect a witness from intimidation, the Fourth District noted there were no “specific factual findings, or any other evidence,” explaining how the witness was actually safer without the excluded person in the courtroom.

It was not enough for the prosecution to claim intimidation might occur. Rather, the state had the burden to prove the exclusion of a member of the public from the courtroom was necessary. Since that did not happen here, the appeals court said, there was a clear violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. And given this was a “structural error” with the trial itself, the defendant’s conviction could not stand even if the violation had no effect on the jury’s decision-making process.

Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Public trials help to ensure confidence in the criminal justice system. If you are charged with a criminal offense, you have the right to insist that prosecutors and judges protect your rights and follow the law. A qualified criminal defense attorney can help you in holding the system accountable. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today if you need to speak with an attorney right away. Call 281-280-0100


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