People v. Evans, 2016 IL App (1st) 142190 (December). Episode 270 (Duration 7:02)
What happens when family members of the defendant are kept out of the courtroom during important trial procedures?
Murder reversed, step-grandmother improperly excluded from the courtroom constitutes structural error. To learn more about Illinois Trials check out this Illinois trial page.
As the trial court was about to begin voir dire, it asked why someone was sitting in the gallery.
Defendant’s attorney explained that it was his step-grandmother.
The trial court immediately responded,
“I’m going to ask you to leave and come back on Monday.”
Counsel told the trial court that she had explained to the lady “the rules of decorum,” and that “she is not to speak to any venire person.”
The trial court said “she’s been fine,” but then stated that it would still ask her to leave during jury selection anyway because “we won’t have enough room.”
Counsel then asked if she could be “segregated” from the venire, because “it is a public trial.” The trial court said that there was no “contamination” but would ask her to leave anyway. Counsel objected, properly preserved the issue, and subsequently appealed.
Trial Court’s Justification
The court stated that it was not prohibiting anyone from attending, but asked the lady to leave because the courtroom had only three rows of seats and 45 potential jurors, and it would be impossible to separate the civilian from the venire to avoid contamination.
The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. VI) guarantees the accused the right to a public trial, and this right extends to voir dire of prospective jurors.
A violation of this right falls into the limited category of “structural errors,” which require automatic reversal without the need to show prejudice.
To justify closing a trial proceeding, the court examines:
(i) whether there exists an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,
(ii) whether the closure is no broader than necessary to protect that interest,
(iii) whether the trial court considered “ ‘reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and
(iv) whether the trial court made adequate findings to support the closure.
Was She Bothering Anyone?
There was not a scintilla of evidence that the step-grandmother was messing with the jurors.
The mere fact that someone might be in close proximity does not raise a meaningful risk of taint to the entire jury pool, as the judge suggested.
There must be a specific threat of jury contamination to meet this standard.
The trial court’s second reason for barring the lady was the limited number of seats available in the courtroom.
This has even less weight than the worry about jury contamination.
Whether 45 potential jurors can sit in the courtroom at one time is solely a matter of logistics and convenience for courtroom personnel—it has no positive effect on the fairness of the trial.
But even in a cramped physical space, trial courts can deal with this limitation in ways that do not burden a defendant’s constitutional rights. The size of a courtroom, or the number of potential jurors who are summoned to a courtroom, do not constitute an “overriding interest.”
Here are some ideas based on common sense:
- calling the potential jurors into the room in smaller groups,
- asking the lady to stand until a seat became available,
- instructing the potential jurors not to interact,
- instructing people to “squeeze” together,
- bring in additional chairs.
What occurred here is in no way a “trivial” closure.
If, as the Supreme Court has instructed, the right to a public trial extends to voir dire, then this exclusion was a complete denial of that right. To work effectively, it is important that society’s criminal process satisfy the appearance of justice, which can best be provided by allowing people to observe it.