NY Top Court To Weigh Courtroom Closure's Constitutionality

By Marco Poggio | April 7, 2023, 7:02 PM EDT ·

The right to a public trial is considered a bedrock principle of the American justice system, and it's one that's at the core of a case that New York's highest court is set to hear later this month.

On April 20, the New York State Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in People v. Dwight Reid, a case in which a man was convicted of murder in 2017 following a trial that was partially held behind closed doors due to what the presiding judge described as "intimidating" behavior by people in her courtroom gallery.

The case against Dwight Reid was a straightforward one: security footage was used to identify him as the man who shot and killed Calvern Wallace, 33, inside a Manhattan bar in January 2014, and circumstantial evidence was enough to obtain his conviction, which was later affirmed by a state mid-level court.

But the mid-trial court closure ordered by Acting Justice Ruth Pickholz, who presided over Reid's trial in the New York Supreme Court, raises constitutional issues under the Sixth Amendment, which gives the criminally accused the right to a fair trial — and, more specifically, a public one. The right of the public to attend court proceedings, meanwhile, is a form of free speech that is also constitutionally protected.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

According to court records, Justice Pickholz said she had to close her courtroom on the fourth day of the eight-day trial because people in the audience had "been very intimidating," and because some of them had taken photos during the proceedings, which is forbidden by state law.

The remaining half of Reid's trial, which included testimony from multiple witnesses, closing arguments from prosecutors and from Reid's counsel, jury instructions, and the verdict, all took place behind closed doors.

Richard M. Greenberg of Romano & Kuan PLLC, who was hired to handle the appeal and will argue on behalf of Reid before the high court, said the closure infringed on his client's rights, and that he deserved a new trial.

Moreover, he told Law360 that allowing Justice Pickholz' actions to survive scrutiny would set a "terrible precedent."

"It would tell judges that they have more leeway and more discretion to close the courtroom for less than compelling reasons," Greenberg said. "And that's not what the law is."

Civil rights activists say the closure was a display of racial prejudice by a white judge against a Black defendant and the largely Black crowd who came to support him during his trial.

A study of New York court practices commissioned by the judiciary following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and published in late 2020 found that there was "a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State."

Last month, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a friend of the court brief in support of Reid's bid for a new trial, saying the closure raised concerns about racial bias, even if unconscious, in the justice system.

"We know that Mr. Reid himself is a Black man and that his family members were present in the courtroom. The victim was also Black. His family members were also present in the courtroom," said Veronica Salama, a staff attorney at the NYCLU. "What this exhibits is the implicit racial bias that the New York state court system itself has noted is deeply entrenched."

A spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr., whose office prosecuted the case and is defending the conviction on appeal, declined to comment.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state's court system, declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

"Proceedings are presumptively public," Chalfen said in an email. "However, a presiding judge has the discretion of closing a courtroom for all or parts of a proceeding if he or she feels that an open courtroom would impact the case."

In their opposition brief, Bragg's office argued the judge was right in closing the courtroom, saying the conduct of Reid's supporters was meant to intimidate witnesses and sow fear in the people present in the courtroom.

"A criminal defendant's constitutional and statutory right to a public trial, although fundamental, is neither absolute nor inflexible," the prosecution argued, calling Reid's constitutional claims "entirely meritless."

When the state's top court, which is still missing one member following the departure of former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, hears arguments in Reid, it will also tackle a separate case raising a similar issue.

In that second case, People v. Hanza Muhammad, court officers prevented spectators from entering the courtroom during the testimony of a key witness in a murder trial, a set of circumstances that Muhammad's attorneys, similar to Reid's, say constituted a Sixth Amendment violation that should void Muhammad's conviction.

A Cold-Blooded Murder And A Shut Courtroom

Following an argument inside PJ's Cocktail Lounge in Harlem shortly after 3 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2014, prosecutors say that Reid shot Wallace in the face at close range, killing him. He then fled the bar and disappeared for nearly five months before being arrested in Pennsylvania that June.

Although no eyewitness to the shooting testified at trial, the manager of the bar identified Reid from a security video that captured the incident. Other witnesses said they saw Reid, who went by the street name "Wolf," in the bar that night, and prosecutors presented cell phone records identifying calls he made from locations close to the lounge around the time of the shooting.

Jurors convicted him of second-degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon at the end of an eight-day trial in Manhattan that began in February 2017. He was later sentenced to 50 years-to-life in prison.

On the trial's fourth day, during the defense's cross-examination of Jacqueline Smith, the PJ's Cocktail Lounge manager who identified Reid as the shooter in the security camera footage, Justice Pickholz warned the audience that they were being too loud, a trial transcript shows.

"I need the audience to be quiet," the judge said. "If I hear noise or I'm told there's noise, I'm going to ask everyone to leave. This is a courtroom. I need complete silence in here and I expect that."

On the stand, Smith complained to the judge that a man in the audience, who she said she believed was Reid's brother, kept staring at her. Then, during an off-the-record discussion on the same day, one of the prosecutors on the case, Assistant District Attorney Jessica Troy, informed the judge that a series of photos that looked as if they had been taken inside the courtroom during the proceedings had surfaced on Instagram bearing hashtags such as "FreeDickWolf." Troy said she was "very concerned" and asked the judge to close the courtroom for the rest of the trial.

Back on the record, the judge said that some people in the audience "have been very intimidating," and that a court reporter felt "very shaken" during an encounter in front of a courthouse elevator with Reid's supporters the day before.

"They intimidated a court reporter already. They stare people down. They're staring up here," Justice Pickholz said. "I am closing this courtroom, and I'm closing it to the family, as well. I'm talking about the family of the deceased."

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Two photos showing defendant Dwight Reid in handcuffs during his trial were allegedly taken inside a courtroom in Manhattan and posted on Instagram. No hearing was held to determine who took the photos or when, but the photos were factored into the presiding judge's decision to close the courtroom to the public for the remainder of the trial. (Court Exhibit)

The Arguments

Advocates say that keeping courtrooms open helps ensure fairness in trials and protects the integrity of the court system — spectators keep judges and prosecutors accountable and help humanize criminal defendants in the eyes of the jury.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of a defendant to be tried before an audience, except in rare circumstances where closures have been deemed justifiable by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the court's seminal 1984 decision in Waller v. Georgia , which affirmed a right of access to hearings involving evidence that may have been obtained illegally, the justices ruled unanimously that courtroom closures could only be deemed constitutional in certain extreme circumstances. Later cases, including Presley v. Georgia in 2010, which dealt with a courtroom closure during jury selection, reinforced the presumption that trials are open to the public.

In New York, closed-door proceedings have been allowed in situations where undercover police officers are called to testify in drug cases, or when witnesses are afraid to testify publicly because of fear of retribution from people in the audience.

In such cases, state law lays out procedures to seek a closure. A party submits an application to the court to close down a courtroom, which triggers a hearing — known as a Hinton hearing after the New York State high court's 1972 ruling in People v. Hinton — to examine the potential prejudice that could occur in the absence of a closure, and whether less extreme means could be employed instead.

"They would hold a hearing and they would get to the bottom of it: Why are you afraid? Has somebody threatened you? How did they threaten you? Who threatened you?" Greenberg said.

Nothing of that sort happened during Reid's trial.

Instead, according to a transcript of the proceedings, Justice Pickholz said only that her decision to close the courtroom was "very cumulative," and that it took into account the cellphone use, the Instagram feeds, and what she described as unsettling behavior by audience members. She told the audience that she didn't believe there was a "lesser remedy" available to her to ensure the trial would continue in an orderly manner. She also said she was keeping the victim's family members out of the courtroom "in fairness."

"I have felt the stares from the audience towards me," she said. "For all those reasons, the presence of the spectators in the courtroom had a chilling effect on this courtroom and … I have to close the courtroom."

Last March, a five-judge panel of the New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed what they called Justice Pickholz' "provident" decision to close the courtroom.

"The court relied on undisputed facts, as well as its own observations of spectators' intimidating behavior and demeanor, the seriousness of which was not necessarily reflected in the cold record," the appellate court decision says.

But Greenberg told Law360 that the judge's reasoning was purely subjective, and that she'd provided no factual basis to justify a closure. The judge could have also ordered people using cellphones to be excluded from the courtroom on an individual basis, or had spectators checked for devices at the door rather than closing the proceedings to the public entirely.

"People in the audience of a trial are allowed to stare. They're allowed to stare at the participants. They can stare at the judge. What they can't do is threaten anybody," he said.

In its brief, the NYCLU agreed but took the argument a step further as it claimed the move was a product of racial bias and the "perception of a facial threat" on the part of the judge.

"What we have here is a trial judge who is making some observations that are inherently racially charged," Salama of the NYCLU said. "The legal standard with respect to court closures is already extremely stringent. What we want is for the judiciary to be faithfully applying those standards."

Bruce Green, a legal ethics scholar at Fordham University School of Law, said in an email to Law360 that it's debatable whether, taken together, the judge's own observations, the intimidation felt by the key witness and the court reporter, and the pictures snapped in the courtroom were sufficient cause to close the courtroom. But he added that he didn't think the reference to implicit bias in the NYCLU's amicus brief advanced the legal analysis on the issue.

"The very premise of implicit bias is that it's not overt, so there is no way to say whether judicial conduct was or was not motivated by implicit racial bias or another cognitive bias. Rules of procedure have to factor in the possibility that judges, being human, have biases of which they themselves may not be aware," Green said. "A trial judge must do the best she can to rest her decision on the facts, including her perceptions and observations."

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office is represented by assistant district attorneys Rachel Bond and Alan Gadlin.

Reid is represented by Richard M. Greenberg and Julia P. Kuan of Romano & Kuan PLLC.

The case is People of the State of New York v. Dwight Reid, case number APL-2022-00106, in the Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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