Minnesota Supreme Court: Locked Courtroom Didn’t Violate Right to Public Trial

23 Jul

I apologize for the lateness of this post.

Back on July 3, the Minnesota Supreme Court held, among other things, that locking the courtroom doors during jury instructions didn’t violate the accused’s  right to a public trial.

The appeal arose from the case of Jerrell Brown, who was convicted in 2010 of aiding and abetting first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang and sentenced to life in prison. The Supreme Court relayed the courtroom closure, instigated by the now-retired Hennepin County Judge Warren R. Sagstuen, as follows:

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“Following closing arguments but before giving jury instructions, the trial court ordered that the courtroom door be locked for the duration of jury instructions. In explaining the situation, the judge stated on the record:

‘For the benefit of those in the back. I am about to begin giving jury instructions. While that is going on the courtroom is going to be locked and people are not going to be allowed to go in and out.
So, if anybody has to leave, now would be the time. You are welcome to s[t]ay. But I just want to make sure that everybody knows that the courtroom is going to be locked. We are all good? Deputy?’

Once the courtroom door was locked, no spectators were let in or out during the jury instructions, but no spectators who were in the courtroom at the time jury instructions began were forced to leave. At the close of the instructions, the trial court handed out copies of the jury instructions and sent the jury to deliberate.”

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In his majority opinion, Page wrote that “Both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6, of the Minnesota Constitution provide that ‘the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial,'” but that since the courtroom was never cleared of all spectators, and because the trial remained open to the public and press already in the courtroom, and because “the jury instructions did not comprise a proportionately large portion of the trial proceedings,” the closure was not Constitutionally significant.

Page tempered his opinion by stating that trial courts should utilize court closure “carefully and sparingly.”

In a dissent that was joined by Justice Paul H. Anderson, Justice Helen Meyer disagreed with the majority on the closure, stating that “the trial court’s decision to close and lock the courtroom doors during jury instructions contravened the purposes of the public trial guarantee” and justified greater scrutiny than was undertaken by the majority. Justice Meyer cited United States Supreme Court precedence in stating that “The right to a public trial is not only for the accused, but also the public and the press, and is a fundamental part of Anglo-American jurisprudence.”

The opinion can be found here. MPR’s Bob Collins gives a short recap here.

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One Response to “Minnesota Supreme Court: Locked Courtroom Didn’t Violate Right to Public Trial”

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  1. Another Locked Courtroom Deemed Permissible « Void for Vagueness - August 15, 2012

    […] Minnesota being upheld by the state’s appellate courts. In the Cook opinion, the court cited a Minnesota Supreme Court opinion from July 2012 for the principle that “a district court does not implicate a defendant’s right to a […]

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