People v. Gore, 2018 IL App (3d) 150627 (April). Episode 502 (Duration 6:36)
Judge doesn’t have to open the courtroom to the public to handle how to answer a jury question.
The State charged defendant with attempted murder (720 ILCS 5/8-4(a), 9-1(a), home invasion (id. § 19-6(a)(2)), and aggravated domestic battery.
Defendant entered his girlfriends home and, knowing that she was home, stabbed her in the neck and chest.
Defendant filed a notice of the affirmative defense of self-defense.
They had been in a relationship for 14 years and had a 12-year-old daughter together. They ended their relationship in early 2014.
Following the separation, defendant briefly lived in the home while the mom and child moved out. Eventually, defendant moved into an apartment, and she moved back into the home.
Defendant owed her money for various expenses, including unpaid bills and some of her personal property, which he had not returned.
The victim testified that the night before the incident in question, she spent time with a man. The man slept over at her house that night. The next morning, after the man had left, she was in the bathroom when she heard the front door to the house unlock.
Defendant entered the bathroom and confronted her about the man.
Defendant hit her in the head, knocked her down, and began choking her.
He dragged her by the hair to the kitchen, where he grabbed a knife from a drawer. They struggled over the knife, and she cut her finger. She distracted defendant by telling him that her father had just arrived at the house. When defendant went to check, she stood up and realized she had been stabbed.
She ran to a neighbor who called 911.
In The Hospital
The victim was in the hospital for six days after the incident, recovering from a stab wound to her throat, two stab wounds to her chest, and a cut on her hand.
The jury found defendant guilty of home invasion and aggravated domestic battery, but not guilty of attempted murder.
The court sentenced defendant to 11 years’ and 7 years’ imprisonment for home invasion and aggravated domestic battery, respectively.
Following closing arguments, the jury retired to deliberate. The court went back on the record when the jury asked a question. The court stated: “They have a question, and I’m reviewing that question in the presence of the defendant and his counsel and the state’s attorney.”
The question asked, with regard to the attempted murder charge, when the requisite intent had to be formed. The parties agreed that the court would answer the question by telling the jury that “it doesn’t matter when [the intent] occurred” and then reading a pattern jury instruction regarding intent.
The jury was brought into the courtroom, at which point the court stated: “Let the record show the jury is in court, but we are, I guess, kind of in open session, because I’ve closed the courtroom to outsiders. Because the jury has a question, I consider that to be a private matter.” The court then answered the question in the manner agreed to by the parties.
Later, the court went back on the record when the jury asked a second question. The court again explained that all parties were present, as was the jury, but “everyone else” had been excluded from the courtroom. The question asked for a transcript of the victim’s testimony. The court informed the jury that there was no transcript, but that the audio recording of her testimony could be replayed if the jury so wished. With the judge and parties still in the courtroom with the jury, the audio recording from portions of the victim’s testimony was replayed.
On appeal, defendant contends that the circuit court violated his sixth amendment right to a public trial when it excluded the public from the portion of proceedings in which it addressed the jury’s questions.
The United States and Illinois Constitutions both provide criminal defendants with the right to a “public trial.” It says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,…” U.S. Const., amend. VI; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 8.
For more information on Illinois criminal trials see this resource page.
Where applicable, the right precludes the closure of a courtroom except where it must give way to an overriding interest, “such as the defendant’s right to a fair trial or the government’s interest in inhibiting disclosure of sensitive information.” Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 45 (1984) (the right did apply at a suppression hearing, and it would find 26 years later that it applied to the jury selection phase as well). See also Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 212-13 (2010).
What About During Jury Questions?
However, we are aware of no cases that have addressed that question and concluded that the public trial right applies when a court answers a jury’s intradeliberational questions.
Accordingly, we begin with that threshold question.
Closing A Courtroom
Before closing the courtroom, a court must consider alternatives to closure and make factual findings sufficient to support the closure. Few of the concerns identified by the case law are present in this case.
In the context of a judge answering an intradeliberational jury question, there is absolutely no concern for perjury or for encouraging witnesses to come forward. No one is sworn in, and no one testifies. There are no facts adduced, and in turn, nothing turns on resolution of any factual questions.
The proceeding, unlike a suppression hearing, does not resemble a bench trial in any way.
Further, there is no specific, self-evident public interest, such as the public’s interest in police conduct at issue in a suppression hearing or the public’s interest in knowing that a particular jury is fairly and openly selected.
Here, after a brief discussion, the court read a pattern jury instruction back to the jury. Later, the court and parties sat silently while audio of testimony from the trial was played.
But Things Can Get Contentious
While defendant asserts that the question of how to present evidence to a jury in the middle of deliberations is “often contentious,” that is simply not borne out by the record before us.
Thus, the public’s interest in ensuring the court and prosecutor execute their duties properly is less where those duties are minimal compared to the more significant portions of a trial.
Error Could Be Introduced
Further, there are affirmative reasons that the public trial right should not apply in the present context.
It is axiomatic that the deliberations of a jury are to remain private and secret in order to insulate the jury from improper influence. Based on this principle, this court has found error where a courtroom is open even to the parties when a jury must return to the courtroom during its deliberations to review evidence, with those courts proceeding straight to a prejudice analysis.
In the present case, defendant does not argue that it was error for the court and parties to be present while the jury reviewed the victim’s testimony. Indeed, he argues that more people should have been welcomed into the courtroom while the court answered the jury’s questions.
While we agree with defendant that the jury’s act of asking a question naturally invites a third party into the fold at the deliberative stage, it is reasonable that the variables that might subconsciously influence the jury at that stage be minimized as much as possible.
The presence of friends and family—of either a defendant or victim—or the media when a jury must return to the courtroom in the middle of its deliberations present no obvious benefits; rather, it is more likely to influence the jury in a way that undermines a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
In sum, we find that a criminal defendant’s right to a public trial is inapplicable to a portion of proceedings in which the circuit court must answer the jury’s intradeliberational questions.
Accordingly, we find that the court in the present case did not violate defendant’s rights or otherwise commit error when it closed the courtroom in that context.