Weaver v. Massachusetts,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

When petitioner was tried, the Massachusetts courtroom could not accommodate all potential jurors. During jury selection, a court officer excluded any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Petitioner was convicted of murder. Five years later, he sought a new trial, arguing that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the closure. The Supreme Court affirmed the state courts in rejecting the argument. 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 claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. A public trial violation is a structural error, which “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” but does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. If an objection is made and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to automatic reversal. If the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show “a reasonable probability that . . . the result of the proceeding would have been different” but for attorney error or that the violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair. Petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome or that the trial was fundamentally unfair and is not entitled to a new trial. His trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to voir dire; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record indicates no basis for concern.

Prior History

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

WEAVER v. MASSSACHUSETTS

certiorari to the supreme judicial court of massachusetts

No. 16–240. Argued April 19, 2017—Decided June 22, 2017

When petitioner was tried in a Massachusetts 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. 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.

Held:

1. 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. Pp. 5–14.

(a) 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. Pp. 5–10.

(1) Generally, a constitutional error that “did not contribute to the verdict obtained” is deemed harmless, which means the defendant is not entitled to reversal. Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18 . However, a structural error, which “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U. S. 279 , defies harmless error analysis, id., at 309. Thus, when a structural error is objected to and then raised on direct review, the defendant is entitled to relief without any inquiry into harm.

There appear to be at least three broad rationales for finding an error to be structural. One is when the right at issue does not protect the defendant from erroneous conviction but instead protects some other interest—like the defendant’s right to conduct his own defense—where harm is irrelevant to the basis underlying the right. See United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U. S. 140 , n. 4. Another is when the error’s effects are simply too hard to measure—e.g., when a defendant is denied the right to select his or her own attorney—making it almost impossible for the government to show that the error was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” Chapman, supra, at 24. Finally, some errors always result in fundamental unfairness, e.g., when an indigent defendant is denied an attorney, see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335 –345. For purposes of this case, a critical point is that an error can count as structural even if it does not lead to fundamental unfairness in every case. See Gonzalez-Lopez, supra, at 149, n. 4. Pp. 5–7.

(2) While a public-trial violation counts as structural error, it does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. This Court’s opinions teach that courtroom closure is to be avoided, but that there are some circumstances when it is justified. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U. S. 39 ; Presley v. Georgia, 558 U. S. 209 –216. The fact that the public-trial right is subject to exceptions suggests that not every public-trial violation results in fundamental unfairness. Indeed, the Court has said that a public-trial violation is structural because of the “difficulty of assessing the effect of the error.” Gonzalez-Lopez, supra, at 149, n. 4. The public-trial right also furthers interests other than protecting the defendant against unjust conviction, including the rights of the press and of the public at large. See, e.g., Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., Riverside Cty., 464 U. S. 501 –510. Thus, an unlawful closure could take place and yet the trial will still be fundamentally fair from the defendant’s standpoint. Pp. 7–10.

(b) The proper remedy for addressing the violation of the right to a public trial depends on when the objection was raised. If an objection is made at trial and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to “automatic reversal” regardless of the error’s actual “effect on the outcome.” Neder v. United States, 527 U. S. 1 . If, however, the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in the context of an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show deficient performance and that the attorney’s error “prejudiced the defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 . To demonstrate prejudice in most cases, the defendant must show “a reasonable probability that . .  . the result of the proceeding would have been different” but for attorney error. Id., at 694. For the analytical purposes of this case, the Court will assume, as petitioner has requested, that even if there is no showing of a reasonable probability of a different outcome, relief still must be granted if the defendant shows that attorney errors rendered the trial fundamentally unfair.

Not every public-trial violation will lead to a fundamentally unfair trial. And the failure to object to that violation does not always deprive the defendant of a reasonable probability of a different outcome. Thus, a defendant raising a public-trial violation via an ineffective-assistance claim must show either a reasonable probability of a different outcome in his or her case or, as assumed here, that the particular violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair.

Neither this reasoning nor the holding here calls into question the Court’s precedents deeming certain errors structural and requiring reversal because of fundamental unfairness, see Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U. S., at 278–279; Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U. S. 510 ; Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U. S., at 261–264, or those granting automatic relief to defendants who prevailed on claims of race or gender discrimination in jury selection, e.g., Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 . The errors in each of these cases were preserved and then raised on direct appeal. The reason for placing the burden on the petitioner here, however, derives both from the nature of the error and the difference between a public-trial violation preserved and then raised on direct review and a public-trial violation raised as an ineffective-assistance claim.

When a defendant objects to a courtroom closure, the trial court can either order the courtroom opened or explain the reasons for keeping it closed, but when a defendant first raises the closure in an ineffective-assistance claim, the trial court has no chance to cure the violation. The costs and uncertainties of a new trial are also greater because more time will have elapsed in most cases. And the finality interest is more at risk. See Strickland, supra, at 693–694. These differences justify a different standard for evaluating a structural error depending on whether it is raised on direct review or in an ineffective-assistance claim. Pp. 10–14.

2. Because petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel’s failure to object or that counsel’s shortcomings led to a fundamentally unfair trial, he is not entitled to a new trial. Although potential jurors might have behaved differently had petitioner’s family or the public been present, petitioner has offered no evidence suggesting a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel’s failure to object. He has also failed to demonstrate fundamental unfairness. His mother and her minister were indeed excluded during jury selection. But his trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to the jury voir dire; the courtroom remained open during the evidentiary phase of the trial; the closure decision apparently was made by court officers, not the judge; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record of the proceedings indicates no basis for concern, other than the closure itself. There was no showing, furthermore, that the potential harms flowing from a courtroom closure came to pass in this case, e.g., misbehavior by the prosecutor, judge, or any other party. Thus, even though this case comes here on the assumption that the closure was a Sixth Amendment violation, the violation here did not pervade the whole trial or lead to basic unfairness. Pp. 14–16.

474 Mass. 787, 54 N. E. 3d 495, affirmed.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Gorsuch, J., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Gorsuch, J., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kagan, J., joined.

Primary Holding

If a defendant fails to preserve or raise an error during jury selection on direct review but instead raises it in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a new trial may be granted only if the defendant can show prejudice.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.