August 22, 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.

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.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trial Court Did Not Err in Not Allowing Courtroom Gallery to See Sexually Explicit Images of Minors

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Robles-Sierra on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Child Pornography—Constitutional Law—Sixth Amendment—Public Trial—Distribution—Publishing—File Sharing Software—Expert Testimony—Jury Instruction.

Sheriff’s department detectives found over 600 files of child pornography—in both video recording and still image form—on various electronic devices defendant owned. In each instance, defendant had downloaded someone else’s file to his computer using ARES peer-to-peer file sharing software. Defendant downloaded the files in such a way that other users downloaded hundreds of defendant’s files. Defendant admitted that he’d downloaded and looked at the sexually exploitative material, but stated as a defense that he hadn’t knowingly violated the law because he did not know how ARES software works. A jury found defendant guilty of four counts of sexual exploitation of a child.

On appeal, defendant challenged all the convictions. He first argued that the district court violated his constitutional right to a public trial by closing the courtroom during the presentation of parts of certain exhibits. Two of the prosecution’s witnesses testified about videos and still images taken from defendant’s devices, describing them in graphic terms. Over defense counsel’s objection, the prosecutor displayed the videos and still images using a screen that could be seen by the witnesses and the jurors, but not by anyone in the courtroom gallery. That portion of a trial when evidence is presented should be open to the public, but that right does not extend to the viewing of all exhibits by the public as those exhibits are introduced or discussed. The right concerns the public’s presence during or access to the trial; where no one is excluded from the courtroom, the right is not implicated. Here, the district court didn’t exclude any member of the public during the presentation of the evidence. Because the court didn’t close the courtroom, there wasn’t any violation of defendant’s right to a public trial.

Defendant also challenged all convictions on the basis that the district court erred by allowing the prosecution’s experts to testify to ultimate legal conclusions that were the jury’s sole prerogative to decide. Even assuming all of the challenged testimony was improper, any error fails the plain error test.

Defendant further challenged his two convictions for publishing, offering, or distributing sexually exploitative material because the prosecution’s theories of publishing and distributing were “legally insufficient.” He alleged that the mere downloading of sexually exploitative material to a share-capable file isn’t publication or distribution, and because we don’t know if the jury convicted on either basis or some proper basis, the verdicts on these counts can’t stand. The Court of Appeals analyzed the meaning of “publishing” and “distribution” and concluded that defendant’s downloading of sexually exploitative material to his computer using peer-to-peer file sharing software, and his saving of that material in sharable files or folders accessible by others using the same software, constituted both publishing and distributing the material within the meaning of the statute.

Finally, defendant challenged his two convictions for publishing, offering, or distributing sexually exploitative material because the jury instruction defining “offer” had the effect of directing a verdict against him on these charges. Here, the instruction was an accurate statement of the law and described a factual circumstance that would constitute an offer. The fact that the jury could have found that factual evidence existed from the evidence presented doesn’t mean the instruction directed a verdict.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.