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Court of Appeals orders new trial in murder case after judge closed court

Judge closed courtroom for four days

New York state’s highest court has ordered a new trial in a murder case because the judge closed the court to the public during part of the trial.

“Although the trial court summarized its reasons for the closure, it held no inquiry on the record to determine the necessity and scope of the closure,” Judge Anthony Cannataro wrote.

State Supreme Court Justice Ruth Pickholz also failed to show that the closure was justified “under the criteria set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Waller v Georgia,” a 1984 decision, Cannataro wrote.

“We conclude that defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated and he is entitled to a new trial,” he wrote.

The defendant, Dwight Reid, was charged with second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree weapon possession, both related to his alleged role in a fatal shooting.

During Reid’s trial, the prosecutor asked Pickholz to close the courtroom because photographs had been taken in the courtroom and posted on Instagram with the caption “Free Dick Wolf” — which the prosecutor claimed was a reference to one of the defendant’s street names.

After an off-the-record discussion with the attorneys, Pickholz stated: “People in the courtroom have been very intimidating … They intimidated a court reporter already. They stare people down. They’re staring up here.”

“I am closing this courtroom based on the fact that now there are pictures that were taken in this courtroom. And I know that pictures can be taken very (surreptitiously) with a cellphone. You can look like you’re looking at your cellphone when you’re really taking pictures. But pictures were taken in this courtroom by someone who had to have been sitting in this courtroom and pictures were taken outside the court. I’m closing the courtroom,” she said.

Reid’s trial attorney objected to the closure and proposed barring cellphones from the courtroom as an alternative, but that suggestion was rejected.

Pickholz said the decision was based on the “cumulative” effect of various factors that created an atmosphere of intimidation during the trial, Cannataro wrote.

She also said that the court reporter was “very shaken” by her interaction with a group of unidentified spectators who asked her if she was afraid to ride in an elevator with them.

Pickholz said the spectators were having “a chilling effect,” and there was not a “lesser remedy” that could be imposed.

Over the last four days of the trial, the court was closed to the public for the testimony of several witnesses, summations, and the jury’s verdict.

Reid was convicted and the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, First Department, affirmed, calling the courtroom closure “a provident exercise of discretion under the extraordinary circumstances presented.”

The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.

“The presumption is that trials will be open to the public, and a trial court’s discretion to exclude the public from criminal proceedings “must be exercised only when unusual circumstances necessitate it,” Cannataro wrote.

“In Waller v Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States set forth criteria for determining when a courtroom may be closed over a defendant’s objection,” Cannataro wrote.

The party seeking to close the courtroom must show “an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced,” he wrote.

“The closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest, the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure,” according to the decision.

Cannataro noted that, in Presley v Georgia, the Supreme Court emphasized that  “the particular interest, and threat to that interest, must be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.”

Cannataro wrote that the requirements of the Waller decision “were not met in this case.”

“The record indicates that some unidentified spectators shared photos of the trial on social media, but the People did not argue that the social media postings were intended to affect or influence the trial itself, and it bears noting that the photos admitted by the People depicted only images of defendant accompanied by court officers, not of jurors or witnesses,” Cannataro wrote.

“The court failed to adequately describe the particular acts and circumstances underlying its conclusion that intimidation was occurring, or to identify the specific individuals who had engaged in such intimidation,” Cannataro wrote.

“The record contains no discussion of the purported offenders, no evidence that any witness was actually intimidated, and only vague descriptions of the purportedly intimidating conduct,” he wrote.

“The court ordered the broadest possible closure, completely excluding all members of the public for the remainder of trial. On this sparse record the closure was disproportionate in relation to the circumstances described,” he wrote.

“The court failed to create a sufficient record to justify a complete closure of the courtroom and, as a result, the closure was not narrowly tailored to the interests sought to be protected,” he wrote.

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