Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Partial Court Closure Was Appropriate in Gang Murder Trial

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled it was proper for a Suffolk Superior Court judge to prohibit certain individuals from attending a murder trial with overtones of gang violence and witness intimidation.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Fernandes

In April of 2003, the defendant was driving his car in Dorchester when he cut off another motorist.  A passenger from the other car, Alfredo Goncalves, confronted the defendant and threatened to hurt him.  The defendant drove away, but Goncalves obtained a gun, drove past the defendant’s house later in the day, and shot two of the defendant’s friends.  The cops arrived shortly thereafter and found the defendant near one of his injured friends.  The defendant refused to cooperate with the police investigation, but the cops heard him repeatedly state that “somebody is going to die for this.”  The defendant was allegedly a member of a gang, and he later told one of his injured friends that the responsible parties were “going to get it.”  About a week and a half later, the defendant and two others tracked down and shot two of Goncalves’s friends, killing one and paralyzing the other.  The defendant was indicted and ultimately convicted by a superior court jury of first-degree murder and armed assault with the intent to murder.  His primary complaint on appeal was that the judge had improperly refused to allow certain members of the public to watch the trial from the courtroom.

As the defendant’s murder trial approached, the judge became aware of several alleged instances of intimidation aimed at the family members of the codefendants and the cooperating witnesses.  The judge attempted to restrict access to the grand jury transcripts and other discovery materials and expressed her concern that the trial itself would present safety issues to the witnesses.  Ultimately the judge decided anyone who wanted to enter the courtroom would be need to be identified and screened at least 24 hours prior to their attendance at the trial.  The defendant objected to the advance notice requirement.  Multiple people were not permitted in the courtroom because they had histories of committing violent crimes.  During the course of the trial, one of the cooperating witnesses disappeared and there were additional allegations of witness intimidation.

The defendant argued on appeal that the trial judge’s decision to prescreen (and in some cases prohibit) trial attendees violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.  The Supreme Judicial Court has made clear that a judge may not prohibit certain individuals from attending criminal trials absent exceptional circumstances.  This is a rare case where such exceptional circumstances existed, according to the SJC.  The Court concluded: the trial judge had a substantial reason to justify the partial closing of the courtroom; the partial closing was no broader than necessary; the judge had properly considered reasonable alternatives to closing the courtroom; and the judge had made the appropriate findings to justify her decision.  The judge made accommodations that allowed the defendant’s family members and friends to attend the trial, and the media was also present.  The particular circumstances and dangers present in this case justified the trial judge’s extraordinary decision to partially close the courtroom.

The defendant is currently serving a life sentence.