Ex-trooper to get new trial on charges he stole cocaine from a State Police evidence room

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.

Complete ruling, Commonwealth vs. Timothy White.

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        Comments

        Whatever

        By on

        he's guilty as sin. He knows it. His lawyer(s) know it.

        Was his lawyer present?

        By on

        Because, in this case, that's the only person who matters. Neither the suspect's family members nor anybody else have any rights to question prospective jurors, let alone object to them. So the fact they couldn't "witness" the jury selection should be totally irrelevant.

        And, as anyone who's been called for jury duty and actually has gone through the empanelment process (which I have twice) will tell you, when prospective jurors are actually questioned, it's done in hushed tones in front of the judge, the bailiff, and the two attorneys. The other prospective jurors, let alone the public in the gallery, cannot hear these discussions (it's not like the judge keeps a microphone on to broadcast the questioning over the court's PA system).

        So, what's next, throwing out a verdict because the public couldn't watch the jury deliberations (which are - gasp - conducted in secret)? This is a perfect example of the need to reform the appeals process so that only issues of EVIDENCE are valid arguments for an appeal, and to presume that the original jury probably got their guilty verdict right and to place the burden of proof to show otherwise on the defendant.

        I'll take the SJC's interpretation of the law

        over yours.

        I take it you are deliberately ignoring the findings that prospective jurors are more likely to answer the voir dire questions truthfully when the public is present in the courtroom, even though the questions are conducted in hushed tones at the bench?

        This is *exactly* the sort of appeal that should be encouraged rather than prohibited: it sends a message to prosecutors and judges that if they screw up, an obviously guilty person is going to be set free.

        The way to protect essential rights is to vigorously defend against marginal chipping-away-at-the-edges.

        NOT...

        ... the SJC. The Appeals Court -- which often seems to get stuff wrong -- thus requiring fixing by the SJC.

        Can You Explain This?

        By on

        This is *exactly* the sort of appeal that should be encouraged rather than prohibited: it sends a message to prosecutors and judges that if they screw up, an obviously guilty person is going to be set free.

        Did you even read the decision? Neither the prosecutor nor the judge "screwed up" by closing the courtroom. A court officer did, "in accordance with then-established custom and practice in Norfolk Superior Court when a court room lacked sufficient space to seat all members of the venire."

        They aren't "chipping away at the edges" of your right to have your relatives watch jury selection, but they will pay the price (along with all of us) when an obviously guilty person is going to be set free.

        Also, I'm not sure whence comes this idea that people are more likely rather than less to express a bias in front of a room full of strangers. It seems counterintuitive, actually.

        Where does the buck stop?

        The judge establishes the procedure and supervises the court officers. I'll bet you this isn't a mistake that another court in Massachusetts is going to make any time soon. Sucks to have to let a guilty guy go free, but sometimes that's the only way to get people's attention.

        There were two parts to the jury selection

        By on

        One was a sort of general session in the courtroom and the second, to which his lawyer agreed to, was a more private screening in the judge's chambers.

        It was the first one that was closed to the public.

        This is not the first time the appeals court has ruled the right to a public trial includes jury selection. If you object, the answer, I suppose, is to start a movement to repeal that portion of the Sixth Amendment.

        Just for the record

        Amendment VI
        In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

        I wonder how many....

        ... Massachusetts Appeals Court decisions get overruled? It seems that a high percentage of their decisions seem wildly offbase (and I do seem to recall a fair number of cases where the SJC rejects their decisions).

        I don't see a problem with this

        By on

        This is all part of the system of checks and balances we have to make sure that trials are as fair as they can be under the system.

        The real crime here is that this misguided war on drugs allowed this to happen in the first place, in my opinion.