April 25, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Partial Closure of Courtroom Without Specific Findings was Structural Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Irving on Thursday, January 10, 2019.

Constitutional Law—Sixth Amendment—Public Trial—Courtroom Closure.

Defendant was charged with first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with a gang-related dispute. During his trial, the prosecutor requested that the court exclude defendant’s mother from the courtroom during his former girlfriend’s testimony because, according to the prosecution, defendant’s mother had urged the girlfriend not to cooperate with the police about four years earlier. The trial court granted the prosecution’s request and partially closed the courtroom during the testimony of defendant’s former girlfriend. Defendant was convicted of second degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

On appeal, defendant contended that the courtroom closure violated his constitutional right to a public trial. The proponent of a courtroom closure must demonstrate not only an overriding interest but also a substantial probability that the identified interest will be prejudiced by an open courtroom. The need to protect witnesses from intimidation constitutes an overriding interest. Here, the alleged intimidation was based on a single, ambiguous, four-year-old statement that the girlfriend later disregarded. The trial court may have identified an overriding interest, but it failed to make any finding that the interest in preventing witness intimidation would be prejudiced unless defendant’s mother was excluded from the courtroom during the girlfriend’s testimony. Therefore, the court erred in partially closing the courtroom and violated defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial. Further, the error was structural.

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

Summary provided courtesy ofColorado Lawyer.

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