Holbrook v. Flynn - 475 U.S. 560 (1986)
U.S. Supreme Court
Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560 (1986)
Holbrook v. Flynn
Argued January 14, 1986
Decided March 26, 1986
475 U.S. 560
After respondent and others were indicted for armed robbery in Rhode Island Superior Court, they were held without bail. When the trial was about to begin, four uniformed state troopers were sitting in the front row of the spectators' section of the courtroom to supplement the customary security force which was overextended at the time. Respondent's counsel objected to the troopers' presence, but this objection was overruled by the trial justice, primarily on the basis of voir dire responses during the selection of the jury indicating that the troopers' presence would not affect the defendants' ability to receive a fair trial. Respondent was convicted, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed. Respondent then brought a habeas corpus proceeding in Federal District Court, which also rejected his objections to the troopers' presence. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial justice had failed to consider whether the particular circumstances of respondent's trial had called for the troopers' presence, and that the justice had improperly relied on the jurors' voir dire responses to rebut any suggestion of prejudice to respondent.
Held: The troopers' presence at respondent's trial was not so inherently prejudicial that he was thereby denied his constitutional right to a fair trial. Pp. 475 U. S. 567-572.
(a) While an accused is entitled to have his guilt or innocence determined solely on the basis of evidence introduced at trial, this does not mean that every practice tending to single out an accused from everyone else in the courtroom must be struck down. Pp. 475 U. S. 567-568.
(b) The conspicuous, or at least noticeable, presence of guards in a courtroom during trial is not the sort of inherently prejudicial practice that should be permitted only where justified by an essential state interest. Such presence need not be interpreted as a sign that the defendant is particularly dangerous or culpable. Jurors may just as easily believe that the guards are there to prevent outside disruptions or eruptions of violence in the courtroom. Reason, principle, and human experience counsel against a presumption that any use of identifiable guards in a courtroom is inherently prejudicial. In view of the variety of ways
in which such guards can be deployed, a case-by-case approach is more appropriate. Pp. 475 U. S. 568-669.
(c) Whenever a courtroom arrangement is challenged as inherently prejudicial, the question is not whether the jurors articulated a consciousness of some prejudicial effect, but rather whether there was an unacceptable risk of prejudice. In this case, there is no justification for finding such an unacceptable risk based on the troopers' presence. Even if the jurors had been aware that the deployment of troopers was not common practice, there is no reason to believe that the troopers' presence tended to brand respondent with guilt. Their presence was unlikely to have been taken as a sign of anything other than a normal official concern for safety and order. Moreover, even if a slight degree of prejudice could be attributed to the troopers' presence, sufficient cause for their presence could be found in the State's need to maintain custody over defendants who had been denied bail. The troopers' presence was intimately related to the State's legitimate interest in maintaining such custody, and thus did not offend the Equal Protection Clause by arbitrarily discriminating against those unable to post bail or to whom bail has been denied. Pp. 475 U. S. 670-672.
(d) Since this case involves a federal court's review of a constitutional challenge to a state court proceeding, the federal court's task is not to determine whether it might have been feasible for the State to have employed less conspicuous security measures in the courtroom, but only whether what the jurors saw was so inherently prejudicial as to pose an unacceptable threat to the defendants' right to a fair trial. Respondent has failed to show the existence of such inherent prejudice, and has not shown actual prejudice. P. 475 U. S. 672.
749 F.2d 961, reversed.
MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 475 U. S. 672.