Even Partial Closure of New Mexico Criminal Court Violates Right to Public Trial in Absence of Overriding Interests

A defendant in a criminal case has a right to a public trial under the 6th Amendment. The question arises whether there are exceptions to this right. In the recent New Mexico Supreme case of State v. Turrietta, the Court had to determine that issue in light of the trial court‘s decision to partially close the courtroom during the testimony of two confidential witnesses.

The case began when the defendant, a member of two different gangs, shot and killed a victim from a third gang. After the defendant‘s conviction for crimes related to the murder, the defendant argued that the trial court violated his right to a public trial when it improperly closed the courtroom during the testimony of two confidential informants.

The Court of Appeals determined that the defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial wasn‘t violated because the district court had a “substantial reason” for the partial closure. Specifically, threats of retaliatory gang violence provided that “substantial reason.”

The Court of Appeals also determined that the defendant failed to establish evidence that the State suppressed any Brady evidence because the defendant discovered that evidence during trial. The defendant appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The Court first had to determine the proper standard when looking at a court‘s decision to partially close a public trial. Is the appropriate standard the “substantial reason” standard or the more stringent “overriding interest” standard?

The Court first explained how the Court of Appeals applied a “substantial reason” standard, which “required the party seeking closure to proffer a substantial reason for the partial closure. Since the State had provided evidence about threats of retaliatory gang violence against the confidential informants, the Court of Appeals determined that the “substantial reason” standard had been met.

However, the Court reasoned that when there‘s any courtroom closure over the objection of a defendant, a more stringent “overriding interest” standard must be met. The Court looked to a prior U.S. Supreme Court case, Waller v. Georgia, which set the “overriding interest” standard.

The Court explained that there are two types of courtroom closures: partial and total. When there‘s a total closure, no spectators are allowed inside and only the attorneys and staff remain. A partial closure means that some, but not all, spectators are permitted in the courtroom. Under Waller, a total courtroom closure is only allowed when there is “an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve high values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”

According to Waller, the “overriding interest” standard has four prongs: 1) the party seeking the closure must “advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,” 2) the closure can‘t be any broader than what‘s needed to protect that overriding interest, 3) the court has to consider reasonable alternatives to the closure, and 4) the court has to make findings that are adequate to support the closure.

The Court explained that several federal circuit courts have applied the less stringent “substantial reason” standard for partial closures. However, the Court decided to adopt the “overriding interest” standard for any type of closure, whether total or partial.

In adopting the “overriding interest” standard, the Court reasoned that the difference between the two standards isn‘t especially clear other than a difference in leniency. Further, the Court reasoned that any courtroom closure, whether total or partial, infringes on a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and carries a heavy burden. The “overriding interest” standard is therefore most effective for a ensuring that a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment rights aren‘t violated.

The Court then had to determine whether the State demonstrated an overriding interest for the partial courtroom closure. The State argued that the facts of the case were sufficient to present an overriding interest, but the defendant argued that that State never provided specific evidence that the confidential informants received specific threats linked to their testimony or that any intimidation would affect their testimony. In short, the defendant argued that “speculative and general concerns do not support closure.”

Looking to the facts of the case, the Court determined that the State didn‘t demonstrate an overriding interest for a partial closure. The Court reasoned that the confidential informants never stated that they were afraid to testify, they never indicated that their testimony would be affected by any threats they received, and they never indicated that the presence of gang members in the audience would affect their testimony. As such, the first prong of Waller wasn‘t met, and the partial closure was unconstitutional.

The Court went on to reason that the second prong of Waller wasn‘t met because the closure was overly broad. It explained that a closure must be “no broader than necessary” to protect an overriding interest. Since the district court excluded more people than those likely to be involved in witness intimidation, the closure wasn‘t narrowly tailored.

The district court also violated the third prong of Waller since it didn‘t consider reasonable alternatives to the closure. The Court explained that the district court must consider all alternatives to any type of closure, and since the district court didn‘t do that, it violated the third Waller prong. Finally, since the trial court didn‘t make findings of fact to support the closure, this too violated the fourth Waller prong.

In conclusion, the right to a public trial is closely protected by the 6th Amendment. Any closure carries a heavy burden upon the defendant to establish an “overriding interest” that justifies violation of this important right.

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