Updated at 3:58 p.m.
A judge's decision to exclude a defendant’s family and friends from the courtroom has snagged post-conviction proceedings in a murder case for eight years. In the latest development, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals today ordered an evidentiary hearing on whether the defense lawyer's decision to agree to the exclusion was wrong.
The defendant, Travis Littlejohn, was found guilty in 2004 of fatally stabbing Nadir Farooq. During his trial in District of Columbia Superior Court, tensions escalated between family and friends of the defendant and the victim, according to today's opinion. Following an altercation outside the courthouse, the judge weighed options for how to proceed with Littlejohn's lawyer and the prosecution.
The judge ordered Littlejohn's family to leave the courtroom at 4 p.m. and Farooq's family a half hour later. When the trial resumed, the judge dismissed Littlejohn's family as planned at 4 p.m., but continued with testimony from a key prosecution witness. Littlejohn argued on appeal that this was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
The appeals court initially affirmed the verdict, finding Littlejohn's lawyer waived his right to a public trial by agreeing to the exclusion plan. Littlejohn filed a motion to vacate his conviction, arguing his lawyer at trial didn’t consult him and should have objected to the exclusion of his family and friends. The trial judge denied Littlejohn's motion without hearing testimony. Littlejohn appealed.
Today, in a divided opinion, a three-judge appellate panel ordered the trial judge to hold an evidentiary hearing, finding there wasn't enough of a record to determine if Littlejohn met the standards for claiming ineffective assistance of counsel.
Judge Kathryn Oberly, joined by Chief Judge Eric Washington, wrote the opinion. Senior Judge William Pryor dissented, saying he would affirm the trial judge's decision to deny Littlejohn's motion. Littlejohn's lawyer on appeal, solo practitioner Jenifer Wicks, declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, also declined to comment.