July 22, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Closure of Courtroom to Reread Jury Instructions Violated Defendant’s Right to Public Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Lujan on Thursday, June 12, 2018.

Right to Public Trial—Constitutional Law—Sixth Amendment—Rebuttal—Residual Hearsay Exception—Other Acts Evidence.

The victim, defendant’s live-in girlfriend, was beaten, strangled, and left on the ground outside a friend’s apartment in 1999. In 2013, the People charged defendant with first degree murder. On the first day of trial, defendant conceded that he was responsible for the victim’s death, but he argued that he was guilty only of reckless manslaughter. After jury deliberations had started, the trial judge closed the courtroom to read limiting instructions to the jury, over defendant’s objection. The jury found defendant guilty of second degree (knowing) murder.

On appeal, defendant contended that his conviction must be reversed because closing the courtroom to read limiting instructions upon the jury’s request violated his right to a public trial and his right to be present. A criminal defendant’s right to a public trial is guaranteed by both the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions. Here, the trial court sua sponte excluded all but the jury, the bailiff, the reporter, and itself from the courtroom. In this case, the closure was total, intentional, and unjustified, and defendant’s Sixth Amendment right was violated.

Defendant also contended that the court committed three evidentiary errors. First, a law enforcement officer testified for the People that in all of their interactions, defendant had never seemed upset or remorseful about the victim’s death. Defendant contended that because the prosecution opened the door to his demeanor, and the testimony did not involve hearsay, he was entitled to elicit rebuttal testimony as part of his right to present a defense. Exclusion of the rebuttal testimony was an abuse of discretion because the court misapplied the law in concluding that the evidence was hearsay. On the other hand, the court did not abuse its discretion in admitting statements made by the victim to two witnesses before her death under the residual hearsay exception because the court found that these statements were sufficiently trustworthy. The court also did not abuse its discretion in allowing defendant’s ex-wife and his former girlfriend to testify about defendant’s specific acts while in their individual relationships, finding that defendant had committed such acts and the evidence was related to a material fact with logical relevance independent of the prohibited inference of defendant’s bad character. Further, the court provided an appropriate limiting instruction.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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