A D.C. Superior Court judge was wrong to close his courtroom to the public during jury selection, but the error isn't enough to overturn a man's conviction on a disorderly conduct charge, an appeals court in Washington said today.
The trial judge, Robert Rigsby, cleared his courtroom in April 2008 to question prospective jurors individually before the start of a trial in which a man was charged with disrupting a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
The defendant, David Barrows, who interrupted the testimony of General David Petraeus during a hearing on Sept. 11, 2007, did not object at the time to the closure of Rigsby’s courtroom. The D.C. Court of Appeals has long held that the public has a right to attend jury selection.
Barrows raised the issue on appeal for the first time, saying the sealing of the room violated the integrity of his trial. Barrows was pro se in the trial court, receiving help from two attorney-advisers. He was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine.
Calling the case one of first impression, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals rejected Barrows’ contention that Rigsby’s action was egregious enough to warrant a reversal of the criminal conviction.
For starters, the appeals court said, it was unclear whether a woman in the courtroom actually objected to being removed from Rigsby’s courtroom or whether she displayed a facial expression of displeasure of having to get up and move.
The appeals court said a “structural” error—one that affects the framework of a trial and not simply the trial process—is likely to have an effect on the “fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” The court added, however, that the closure of this courtroom did not “seriously” affect those factors.
The closure was brief, the appeals court said, and the judge assured spectators that they could attend the trial. There is nothing in the record, the court said, indicating that Rigsby wanted secret proceedings to avoid public scrutiny.
“We cannot conclude that the judge’s (polite) handling of the matter, though erroneous, had any serious adverse effect on the public reputation of the court,” Judge Phyllis Thompson wrote in today’s 23-page ruling [.pdf], joined by judges Vanessa Ruiz and Noel Kramer.
Even if spectators had been allowed to remain in court, the observers would not have heard the exchanges among Rigsby, the prosecutor and Barrows. The judge turned on a white noise device commonly called a “husher.”
A lawyer for Barrows, Jeffrey Light, a Washington solo practitioner, said he is planning to review whether to ask the full court to hear the case.