The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ordered a new trial on drug-trafficking charges for Timothy White because court officers blocked his family and members of the public from the courtroom while the judge interviewed prospective jurors, in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
White, assigned to the State Police Narcotics Inspection Unit in Framingham, was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges he and a drug dealer conspired to steal cocaine from the Framingham barracks.
Norfolk County prosecutors argued the closing of the courtroom for space reasons - White's case had attracted widespread attention - was inadvertent and didn't affect the outcome of the case, because it only occurred for a short period of time during jury selection.
The justices didn't agree. The closing of the courtroom struck at all struck at the very heart of assuring impartial juries, the court ruled:
The general questioning of the venire [the group of prospective jurors] in this case, from which the public was excluded, was not limited to the formalities attendant to jury selection. The questions posed to the venire, questions required in every criminal case, lie at the core of our jury selection procedure. It is the procedure by which those prospective jurors who ultimately are chosen to serve declare their impartiality under the watchful eyes of the public. See Owens v. United States, 483 F.3d 48, 65 (1st Cir.2007) (public presence encourages potential jurors to respond truthfully to questions regarding their biases and encourages lawyers to perform their functions more responsibly). As jury selection is generally conducted in Massachusetts, the statutory questions, including those of presumptive importance only in criminal cases, represent the most basic form of inquiry to ensure impartiality of prospective jurors. Indeed, were we to relegate this aspect of the voir dire to a mere triviality, the right of public access to jury selection required under Presley v. Georgia, supra, would be eviscerated. In the Commonwealth, empanelment in many criminal cases begins and ends with these statutory questions. Given the specific content of the general questioning in this case, we conclude that the closure to the general public was not de minimis.
This will be White's third trial on the charges since his 2003 indictment. The first jury deadlocked on several of the charges and the judge declared a mistrial.