On June 22, 2017, the United State Supreme Court decided the case of Kentel Weaver v. Massachusetts. When petitioner was tried in a state trial court, the courtroom could not accommodate all the potential jurors. As a result, for two days of jury selection, an officer of the court excluded from the courtroom any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review.
This is an increasingly common issue in both Ocean and Monmouth counties. The respective courthouses were built decades ago and both counties have seen their populations increase exponentially. The size of the county courtrooms has remained the same. They are often not able to accommodate every member of the public that wishes to view the proceedings, especially in cases that receive media coverage. The problem is exacerbated when the prosecutor’s office intentionally fills the limited space with their employees.
Petitioner was convicted of murder and a related charge. Five years later, he filed a motion for a new trial in state court, arguing, as relevant here, that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the courtroom closure. The trial court ruled that he was not entitled to relief. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed in relevant part. Although it recognized that the violation of the right to public trial was a structural error, it rejected petitioner’s ineffective-assistance claim because he had not shown prejudice.
A 6 to 3 majority of the United States Supreme Court held that in the context of a public-trial violation during jury selection, where the error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. This case requires an examination of the proper application of the doctrines of structural error and ineffective assistance of counsel. They are intertwined, because the reasons an error is deemed structural may influence the proper standard used to evaluate an ineffective-assistance claim premised on the failure to object to that error.