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Weaver v. Massachusetts

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 2017

KENTEL MYRONE WEAVER, PETITIONER
v.
MASSACHUSETTS

          Argued April 19, 2017

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS

When petitioner was tried in a Massachusetts trial court, the courtroom could not accommodate all the potential jurors. As a result, for two days of jury selection, an officer of the court excluded from the courtroom any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner's mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Petitioner was convicted of murder and a related charge. Five years later, he filed a motion for a new trial in state court, arguing, as relevant here, that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the courtroom closure. The trial court ruled that he was not entitled to relief. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed in relevant part. Although it recognized that the violation of the right to public trial was a structural error, it rejected petitioner's ineffective-assistance claim because he had not shown prejudice.

         Held:

1. In the context of a public-trial violation during jury selection, where the error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. Pp. 5-14.
(a) This case requires an examination of the proper application of the doctrines of structural error and ineffective assistance of counsel. They are intertwined, because the reasons an error is deemed structural may influence the proper standard used to evaluate an ineffective-assistance claim premised on the failure to object to that error. Pp. 5-10.
(1) Generally, a constitutional error that "did not contribute to the verdict obtained" is deemed harmless, which means the defend- ant is not entitled to reversal. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24. However, a structural error, which "affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds, " Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 310, defies harmless error analysis, id., at 309. Thus, when a structural error is objected to and then raised on direct review, the defendant is entitled to relief without any inquiry into harm.
There appear to be at least three broad rationales for finding an error to be structural. One is when the right at issue does not protect the defendant from erroneous conviction but instead protects some other interest-like the defendant's right to conduct his own defense-where harm is irrelevant to the basis underlying the right. See United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 149, n. 4. Another is when the error's effects are simply too hard to measure-e.g., when a defendant is denied the right to select his or her own attorney-making it almost impossible for the government to show that the error was "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, " Chapman, supra, at 24. Finally, some errors always result in fundamental unfairness, e.g., when an indigent defendant is denied an attorney, see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 343-345. For purposes of this case, a critical point is that an error can count as structural even if it does not lead to fundamental unfairness in every case. See Gonzalez-Lopez, supra, at 149, n. 4. Pp. 5-7.
(2) While a public-trial violation counts as structural error, it does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. This Court's opinions teach that courtroom closure is to be avoided, but that there are some circumstances when it is justified. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39; Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 215-216. The fact that the public-trial right is subject to exceptions suggests that not every public-trial violation results in fundamental unfairness. Indeed, the Court has said that a public-trial violation is structural because of the "difficulty of assessing the effect of the error." Gonzalez-Lopez, supra, at 149, n. 4. The public-trial right also furthers interests other than protecting the defendant against unjust conviction, including the rights of the press and of the public at large. See, e.g., Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of Col., Riverside Cty., 464 U.S. 501, 508-510. Thus, an unlawful closure could take place and yet the trial will still be fundamentally fair from the defendant's standpoint. Pp. 7-10.
(b) The proper remedy for addressing the violation of the right to a public trial depends on when the objection was raised. If an objection is made at trial and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to "automatic reversal" regardless of the error's actual "effect on the outcome." Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 7. If, however, the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in the context of an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show deficient performance and that the attorney's error "prejudiced the defense." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687. To demonstrate prejudice in most cases, the defendant must show "a reasonable probability that . . . the result of the proceeding would have been different" but for attorney error. Id., at 694. For the analytical purposes of this case, the Court will assume, as petitioner has requested, that even if there is no showing of a reasonable probability of a different outcome, relief still must be granted if the defendant shows that attorney errors rendered the trial fundamentally unfair.
Not every public-trial violation will lead to a fundamentally unfair trial. And the failure to object to that violation does not always deprive the defendant of a reasonable probability of a different outcome. Thus, a defendant raising a public-trial violation via an ineffective-assistance claim must show either a reasonable probability of a different outcome in his or her case or, as assumed here, that the particular violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair.
Neither this reasoning nor the holding here calls into question the Court's precedents deeming certain errors structural and requiring reversal because of fundamental unfairness, see Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S., at 278-279; Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510, 535; Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S., at 261-264, or those granting automatic relief to defendants who prevailed on claims of race or gender discrimination in jury selection, e.g., Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 100. The errors in each of these cases were preserved and then raised on direct appeal. The reason for placing the burden on the petitioner here, however, derives both from the nature of the error and the difference between a public-trial violation preserved and then raised on direct review and a public-trial violation raised as an ineffective-assistance claim.
When a defendant objects to a courtroom closure, the trial court can either order the courtroom opened or explain the reasons for keeping it closed, but when a defendant first raises the closure in an ineffective-assistance claim, the trial court has no chance to cure the violation. The costs and uncertainties of a new trial are also greater because more time will have elapsed in most cases. And the finality interest is more at risk. See Strickland, supra, at 693-694. These differences justify a different standard for evaluating a structural error depending on whether it is raised on direct review or in an ineffective-assistance claim. Pp. 10-14.
2. Because petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel's failure to object or that counsel's shortcomings led to a fundamentally unfair trial, he is not entitled to a new trial. Although potential jurors might have behaved differently had petitioner's family or the public been present, petitioner has offered no evidence suggesting a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel's failure to object. He has also failed to demonstrate fundamental unfairness. His mother and her minister were indeed excluded during jury selection. But his trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to the jury voir dire; the courtroom remained open during the evidentiary phase of the trial; the closure decision apparently was made by court officers, not the judge; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record of the proceedings indicates no basis for concern, other than the closure itself. There was no showing, furthermore, that the potential harms flowing from a courtroom closure came to pass in this case, e.g., misbehavior by the prosecutor, judge, or any other party. Thus, even though this case comes here on the assumption that the closure was a Sixth Amendment violation, the violation here did not pervade the whole trial or lead to basic unfairness. Pp. 14-16.

474 Mass. 787, 54 N.E.3d 495');">54 N.E.3d 495, affirmed.

          KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GORSUCH, J., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which GOR-SUCH, J., joined. BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined.

          OPINION

          KENNEDY, JUSTICE

         During petitioner's trial on state criminal charges, the courtroom was occupied by potential jurors and closed to the public for two days of the jury selection process. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. And the case comes to the Court on the assumption that, in failing to object, defense counsel provided ineffective assistance.

         In the direct review context, the underlying constitutional violation-the courtroom closure-has been treated by this Court as a structural error, i.e., an error entitling the defendant to automatic reversal without any inquiry into prejudice. The question is whether invalidation of the conviction is required here as well, or if the prejudice inquiry is altered when the structural error is raised in the context of an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.

         I

         In 2003, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed in Boston. A witness saw a young man fleeing the scene of the crime and saw him pull out a pistol. A baseball hat fell off of his head. The police recovered the hat, which featured a distinctive airbrushed Detroit Tigers logo on either side. The hat's distinctive markings linked it to 16-year-old Kentel Weaver. He is the petitioner here. DNA obtained from the hat matched petitioner's DNA.

         Two weeks after the crime, the police went to petitioner's house to question him. He admitted losing his hat around the time of the shooting but denied being involved. Petitioner's mother was not so sure. Later, she questioned petitioner herself. She asked whether he had been at the scene of the shooting, and he said he had been there. But when she asked if he was the shooter, or if he knew who the shooter was, petitioner put his head down and said nothing. Believing his response to be an admission of guilt, she insisted that petitioner go to the police station to confess. He did. Petitioner was indicted in Massachusetts state court for first-degree murder and the unlicensed possession of a handgun. He pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial.

         The pool of potential jury members was large, some 60 to 100 people. The assigned courtroom could accommodate only 50 or 60 in the courtroom seating. As a result, the trial judge brought all potential jurors into the courtroom so that he could introduce the case and ask certain preliminary questions of the entire venire panel. Many of the potential jurors did not have seats and had to stand in the courtroom. After the preliminary questions, the potential jurors who had been standing were moved outside the courtroom to wait during the individual questioning of the other potential jurors. The judge acknowledged that the hallway was not "the most comfortable place to wait" and thanked the potential jurors for their patience. 2 Tr. II- 103 (Apr. 10, 2006). The judge noted that there was simply not space in the courtroom for everybody.

         As all of the seats in the courtroom were occupied by the venire panel, an officer of the court excluded from the courtroom any member of the public who was not a potential juror. So when petitioner's mother and her minister came to the courtroom to observe the two days of jury selection, they were turned away.

         All this occurred before the Court's decision in Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209 (2010) (per curiam). Presley made it clear that the public-trial right extends to jury selection as well as to other portions of the trial. Id., at 213-215. Before Presley, Massachusetts courts would often close courtrooms to the public during jury selection, in particular during murder trials.

         In this case petitioner's mother told defense counsel about the closure at some point during jury selection. But counsel "believed that a courtroom closure for [jury selection] was constitutional." Crim. No. 2003-11293 (Super. Ct. Mass., Feb. 22, 2013), App. to Pet. for Cert. 49a. As a result, he "did not discuss the matter" with petitioner, or tell him "that his right to a public trial included the [jury voir dire], " or object to the closure. Ibid.

         During the ensuing trial, the government presented strong evidence of petitioner's guilt. Its case consisted of the incriminating details outlined above, including petitioner's confession to the police. The jury convicted petitioner on both counts. The court sentenced him to life in prison on the murder charge and to about a year in prison on the gun-possession charge.

         Five years later, petitioner filed a motion for a new trial in Massachusetts state court. As relevant here, he argued that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the courtroom closure. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court recognized a violation of the right to a public trial based on the following findings: The courtroom had been closed; the closure was neither de minimis nor trivial; the closure was unjustified; and the closure was full rather than partial (meaning that all members of the public, rather than only some of them, had been excluded from the courtroom). The trial court further determined that defense counsel failed to object because of "serious incompetency, inefficiency, or inattention." Id., at 63a (quoting Massachusetts v. Chleikh, 82 Mass.App. 718, 722, 978 N.E.2d 96, 100 (2012)). On the other hand, petitioner had not "offered any evidence or legal argument establishing prejudice." App. to Pet. for Cert. 64a. For that reason, the court held that petitioner was not entitled to relief.

         Petitioner appealed the denial of the motion for a new trial to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court consolidated that appeal with petitioner's direct appeal. As noted, there had been no objection to the closure at trial; and the issue was not raised in the direct appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court then affirmed in relevant part. Although it recognized that "[a] violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial constitutes structural error, " the court stated that petitioner had "failed to show that trial counsel's conduct caused prejudice warranting a new trial." 474 Mass. 787, ...


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