The Colorado Supreme Court will decide whether an Arapahoe County judge violated a man's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial by excluding his co-defendant's wife from the courtroom.
Previously, the state's Court of Appeals determined the answer was yes, and ordered a new trial for Terrel Shameek Turner. The Attorney General's Office appealed, arguing the trial court judge was justified in barring the woman, who had harassed a victim advocate and witness in the hallway.
"The court found the incident interfered with the 'orderly presentation of evidence' and, considering the relevant circumstances, excluding her from the courtroom was necessary," wrote Assistant Attorney General Jacob R. Lofgren in a petition to the Supreme Court.
The Sixth Amendment does allow for courtroom closures — including partial closures excluding one person — for such reasons as protecting sensitive information, the U.S. Supreme Court noted in the 1984 decision of Waller v. Georgia. To partially or fully close a courtroom to the public, there must be an “overriding interest” in the closure, a consideration of reasonable alternatives, and the closure must be as narrow as possible.
In Turner's case, he was on trial with co-defendant Christopher Cruse for conspiring to rob a marijuana dispensary. A jury found him guilty of multiple offenses related to the conspiracy and he received five years in prison.
But on the third day of his 2017 trial, the prosecutor told the court that Cruse's wife had been arrested for harassment outside the courtroom. Cruse's attorney objected to the prosecutor's suggestion that the woman not be allowed in the courtroom.
Before any legal action was taken against Cruse's wife, Arapahoe County District Court Judge Ben L. Leutwyler III agreed to prohibit her from the courtroom for the remainder of the trial. He said, among other things, that he had an obligation to ensure the safety of all participants.
But in December, a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals determined the partial closure amounted to a constitutional violation. Leutwyler had not, the panel found, made sufficient findings that the exclusion of Cruse's wife for the rest of the trial was necessary. Specifically, the nature of the harassment was unclear, and the witness and the victim advocate who were harassed may not have needed to be in the courtroom through the end of trial.
"[I]t does not appear the court considered any alternatives to partially closing the courtroom, such as allowing wife or the victim advocate to observe the trial virtually," wrote Judge Gilbert M. Román for the appeals panel.
He elaborated that the exclusion of Cruse's wife was a significant error that implicated the protections that the right to a public trial is supposed to provide: reminding prosecutors and judges of their accountability to the criminally accused, encouraging witnesses to come forward and discouraging perjury. In particular, given that the prosecution suggested Turner and Cruse conspired due to their personal friendship, the absence of Cruse's wife may have affected the jury's view of the defendants.
The Attorney General's Office urged the Supreme Court to review the panel's decision and find that there was a substantial reason to justify the closure. Further, the government argued, even if there was a constitutional violation, the appropriate course of action should be to send the case back to the district court for more detailed review.
The Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it will consider those issues, as well as whether it mattered to Turner's case that Cruse's lawyer, and not his, was the one who made the objection to the partial courtroom closure.
The case is People v. Turner.