Massachusetts Appeals Court Overturns Manslaughter Conviction Because Judge Improperly Closed Courtroom to Public

The Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed a defendant’s conviction for manslaughter earlier this week after concluding the trial judge improperly restricted the public’s access to the courtroom during the jury selection process.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lopes

The defendant was convicted of stabbing to death a man in Dorchester in 1995.  According to the Boston Globe, the killing set in motion a wave of violence that resulted in 24 murders and many stabbings in the Cape Verdean community.  The defendant was on the lam for 12 years after the stabbing.  The police eventually caught up with him in 2007 and he was put on trial in Suffolk Superior Court in 2008.

The defendant’s successful appeal was the result of a practice that until recently was widespread in the Commonwealth.  Before a trial starts, the judge and the attorneys embark on a process to select a jury.  Hundreds of Massachusetts citizens report every day to the various trial courts across the Commonwealth after receiving jury service summonses in the mail.  These potential jurors, collectively known as the venire, are greeted by a judge, shown an educational video, and made available if a trial is about to begin.  Massachusetts has a “one day, one trial” system, which means if prospective jurors are not selected to sit on a case, they are excused after only one day.  The prospective jurors who are seated on a case are obviously required to serve until the trial is finished.  Before a prospective juror is selected, he or she completes a one-page biographical questionnaire that is shared with the judge and the attorneys.  The judge is permitted to ask followup questions in an effort to ensure that any juror who is seated will be fair and unbiased.  The actual process of selecting a jury is boring (except to the parties) and much of the work is done at the sidebar (out of earshot of anyone who happens to be sitting in the gallery).

Logistically, jury selection is often difficult because dozens and dozens of potential jurors can be asked to squeeze into relatively small courtrooms in order to respond to the judge’s questions.  This is particularly true in superior court cases, where the jury pools are typically larger than those in district court.  For many years, judges addressed this problem by banning members of the public (including reporters, family members of the defendant and the victim, and curious onlookers) from the courtroom during jury selection.  By clearing out the courtroom, there was extra space to fit every last prospective juror.  Several years ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court began delivering a series of opinions indicating that courtroom closures – even during jury selection – violated a defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial.  These decisions could have impacted thousands of convictions across the Commonwealth, but the SJC fixed that problem by ruling that if a defense attorney did not object to the closure, the issue was waived on appeal (and it was not ineffective assistance of counsel to fail to object, since nobody knew it was an issue).

This case presented the rare circumstance where a defense attorney lodged an objection to the closing of the courtroom.  There were 90 prospective jurors crammed into a courtroom with approximately 80 seats.  The defense attorney objected to the defendant’s family members being excluded from the courtroom and the judge responded that there were no possible seats for them.  The judge ruled the family members would be permitted to enter as soon as the number of prospective jurors decreased (as jurors were either seated in the jury box or excused and sent back to the jury room).  Accordingly, the defendant’s family witnessed some, but not all, of the jury selection process.  Because the judge did not consider, as required by caselaw, whether there were reasonable alternatives to closing the courtroom, the defendant is entitled to a new trial.

As is often the case, while the defendant prevailed on appeal, it’s a hollow victory.  According to the Globe, he has already served his entire prison sentence and been released.