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New trial ordered in murder case after judge limited courtroom access

Judge restricted access to courtroom

The state’s highest court has ordered a new trial in a murder case because the judge limited access to the courtroom.

Defendant Hanza Muhammad was convicted in July 2018 of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

During his trial, Onondaga County Court Judge Thomas J. Miller prohibited the public from entering or exiting the courtroom when a witness was testifying.

The conviction was affirmed in June 2022 by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Fourth Department. That ruling was reversed in a recent decision by the New York State Court of Appeals.

“We agree with the Appellate Division that members of the public were excluded from the courtroom at a time when they should have had access,” Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera wrote.

“But, contrary to the Appellate Division’s conclusion, that error directly resulted from the acts of court officials enforcing the trial judge’s order. Therefore, the court violated the defendant’s right to a public trial,” she wrote.

On the morning of the third day of trial, several members of the victim’s family and defendant’s supporters began arriving at the courtroom shortly before 9 a.m.

In accordance with the court’s rule, they turned in their cell phones to the court officer standing outside the courtroom doors in anticipation of being allowed inside and waited in the hallway directly across from the officer, according to the Court of Appeals decision.

At 9:40 a.m. the prosecution’s witness was escorted into the courtroom. After the prosecution completed the direct examination, and a few minutes into defense counsel’s cross examination, the prosecutor learned that several members of the public were waiting in the hallway, and he told the judge.

Miller ordered the jury out of the courtroom to allow the public waiting outside to enter. Once the public was seated inside, the trial judge recalled the jury and defense counsel continued with the cross examination.

The next day, Miller held a hearing on the exclusion of the public. Witnesses called for the hearing included court officers, personnel associated with the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office, a Syracuse police officer, and individuals who had been waiting outside the courtroom the prior morning.

After the hearing, Miller denied the defense motion for a mistrial, holding that the court “neither explicitly nor implicitly excluded members of the public during the testimony of a witness and that court officers did not exclude anyone from the courtroom when a witness was not testifying,” according to the decision.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.

“We conclude that the exclusion of members of the public found by the Appellate Division was a direct result of the trial judge’s affirmative acts and his staff’s implementation of the general policy which, in turn, violated defendant’s right to a public trial,” Rivera wrote.

“The officers did not properly execute that policy here, as several members of the public who appeared at the courtroom doors before the witness’s testimony started were excluded until after the prosecutor’s direct examination and the first minutes of the cross examination,” Rivera wrote.

“We conclude that, because the trial judge adopted the policy of routinely prohibiting entry to the courtroom, he ultimately bore responsibility for its proper implementation. The misapplication of the judge’s policy led to an unjustified exclusion of the public and therefore violated defendant’s right to a public trial,” Rivera wrote.

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