New York Court of Appeals Overturns Two Murder Convictions Over Closed Courtrooms
- The Court of Appeals has reemphasized that courtrooms may only be closed in “unusual circumstances.”
- In order to close a courtroom: (1) a party 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) it must make findings adequate to support the closure.
The Bottom Line
The right to open courtrooms in New York state court is nearly sacrosanct and trial courts must meet a high bar in order to exclude the public (and by extension, the press) from the courtroom.
In two decisions this week, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, overturned murder convictions on Sixth Amendment grounds because the trial court judges had closed their courtrooms during the trials. These decisions reinforce the right to public trials and open courtrooms in New York state courts, and will help preserve media access to courtrooms in the future.
In People v. Reid, the defendant was charged with second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree weapon possession in relation to his alleged role in a fatal shooting. 2023 NY Slip Op 02755 (N.Y. May 23, 2023). During his trial, the government moved to close the courtroom, citing the fact that photographs had been taken in the courtroom and posted on Instagram with the caption “Free Dick Wolf,” which the prosecution alleged was a reference to a “street name” of the defendant. The trial court noted its concerns with the photographs, and added that “[p]eople in the courtroom have been very intimidating. . . . They intimidated a court reporter already. They stare people down. They’re staring up here. I am closing this courtroom based on the fact that now there are pictures taken in this courtroom.” Despite defense counsel’s objection to the closure and counsel’s proposal that the court bar cellphones from the courtroom, the court closed the courtroom to everyone. The court was then closed to the public for four days of the eight-day jury trial including for testimony of several witnesses, summations, and the jury’s verdict. After the trial, the defendant appealed the court’s decision, and the appellate division affirmed the court’s decision to close the courtroom.
The Court of Appeals overturned the murder conviction in Reid, and ordered a new trial, on the basis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Waller v. Georgia, which established the criteria for determining when a courtroom may be closed over a defendant’s objection (467 U.S. 39, 48 (1984)). Under Waller, “the party seeking to close the hearing must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest, the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure.” Furthermore, this “particular interest, and threat to that interest, must be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.” Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 215 (2010) (internal citations omitted). According to the Court of Appeals, Waller’s requirements were not met because (1) the government did not argue that the social media postings were intended to affect or influence the trial itself; (2) the photos only depicted images of the defendant and not jurors or witnesses; and (3) the court failed to describe adequately the circumstances or individuals involved underlying its conclusion that intimidation was occurring. The Court of Appeals noted that preventing “intimidation by spectators during trial may very well be an overriding interest that can support courtroom closure,” but the trial court must ensure that the record adequately justifies its concerns and demonstrates that the identified interest would be jeopardized absent closure. The trial court must also appropriately tailor any closure to the given circumstances and consider alternatives to closure even when they are not offered by the parties.
In People v. Muhammad, the Court of Appeals also overturned a defendant’s murder conviction on the basis of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to a public trial. 2023 NY Slip Op 02756 (N.Y. May 23, 2023). In Muhammad, the trial court judge had delegated to court officers the implementation of the judge’s general policy of prohibiting the public from entering or exiting the courtroom while a witness testified. On the morning of the third day of trial, court officers unjustifiably kept members of the public from entering the courtroom even when a witness was not testifying. Court officers collected cell phones from individuals outside the courtroom, but did not inform them that they were free to enter the courtroom until after the prosecution had finished the direct examination of a witness, and the defense had begun its cross-examination of the witness. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court was responsible for the officers’ misapplication of the court’s policy, and the resulting violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
While neither case explicitly cited the public’s First Amendment right to attend open trials, see Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980), both opinions noted the benefits to the public from open trials and reflected the same stringent requirements that must be met before any part of a trial is closed. Quoting Waller, which in turn referenced Gannett v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368, 380 (1979), the Court of Appeals noted that “requirement of a public trial is for the benefit of the accused; that the public may see that [the accused] is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned, and that the presence of interested spectators may keep [the accused’s] triers keenly alive to a sense of their responsibility and to the importance of their function[.]” Similarly, in Reid, the Court of Appeals cited Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., Riverside Cty., where the Supreme Court upheld the right of the public (in that particular case, the press) to an open courtroom unless there was “an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” 464 U.S. 501, 510 (1984). These underlying opinions for the Court of Appeals’ decisions show how intertwined defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial is with the public and press’s First Amendment right to attend trials. See, e.g., Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., Riverside Cty., 464 U.S. at 516-520 (Stevens, J., concurring) (noting that he would have preserved access to the courtroom under the First Amendment rather than the Sixth Amendment).
Both Reid and Muhammad reinforce the fact that the right to open courtrooms in New York is bedrock constitutional protection. As the Court of Appeals noted in Reid, a trial court’s discretion in closing the courtroom must be “sparingly exercised and invoked only when unusual circumstances necessitate it. When such unusual circumstances occur, it is incumbent on the court to ensure that the record adequately supports excluding members of the public.” As a result of these strong protections for public trials, the press will also benefit as it will protect journalists’ access to court proceedings.
The attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Media and Entertainment Law Group help clients across platforms navigate some of the most challenging legal issues that arise in a healthy, functioning democracy—in the newsroom and in court. Our clients range from global news, entertainment, and advertising companies to local newspapers, news startups, freelance journalists, and internet companies. We also represent studios, directors and producers, sports teams, universities, authors, filmmakers, nonprofits, and government watchdog organizations—anyone who creates or disseminates content. Ballard Spahr attorneys in the White Collar/Internal Investigations Group also have deep experience in assisting individuals and entities in navigating state and federal criminal laws, including where those laws intersect with constitutional issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Please contact us for more information.
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