Monday, September 15th, 2014

Excluding Defendant’s Parents from Trial During Victim’s Testimony Did Not Violate Right to Public Trial

United States v. Ledee, No. 13-2363-cr (2d Cir. Aug. 8, 2014) (Walker, Pooler, and Wesley), available here

The defendant was convicted of crimes stemming from participating via webcam in the sexual abuse of an eight-year-old girl by her mother. At trial, the district court granted the government’s motion to close the courtroom during the victim’s testimony to all persons who were not directly involved in the trial, including the defendant’s parents.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the courtroom closure violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The Circuit, over a dissent by Judge Pooler, disagreed and affirmed. [Disclosure: Federal Defenders of New York, Inc., represents the defendant in this case.]

For a courtroom to be closed to the public in compliance with the Sixth Amendment, four requirements must be met: (1) the closure must “advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced;” (2) the closure must be “no broader than necessary to protect that interest;” (3) the trial court must consider “reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding;” and (4) the court must make “findings adequate to support the closure.” See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 48 (1984).

The panel majority found these requirements satisfied. First, it ruled that the interest at risk of being prejudiced — the victim’s ability to effectively communicate about her abuse — was sufficient to justify the “relatively narrow closure here.”

Second, the Court found that the closure was not overly broad, even though it included the defendant’s parents. According to the panel, the trial judge reasonably determined that the parents had to be excluded from the courtroom to ensure the victim’s effective testimony.

Third, the Court ruled that the trial court adequately considered reasonable alternatives to closure because it said that “[t]he parties have not advised the court of any [such] alternatives…, and the court is not aware of any.”

Finally, the Court ruled that the district court made adequate findings, supported by an affidavit from the victim’s father, to support the courtroom closure.

In dissent, Judge Pooler concluded that the district court failed to make an adequate record of what alternatives to closure it considered and why those alternatives were deemed inadequate.   


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