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Name: Weaver v. Massachusetts
Case #: 16-240
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 06/22/2017
Subsequent History: 137 S.Ct. 1899

Although a violation of the right to a public trial is structural error, when the claim is raised in the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, defendant must show prejudice to obtain relief. Weaver’s trial was held in a courtroom that could not accommodate all potential jurors so, for two days during jury selection, court officers excluded all other members of the public, including Weaver’s mother and minister. Trial counsel did not object and Weaver did not raise the issue on direct review. Five years later, Weaver filed a motion for a new trial, arguing his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance (IAC) by failing to object to the closure. The trial court denied relief. In a consolidated appeal, the state supreme court concluded that the courtroom closure violated Weaver’s public trial right, but denied relief on the ground that Weaver could not show prejudice. He appealed. Held: Affirmed. A violation of the right to a public trial is considered structural error and, when raised on direct review, a defendant is entitled to automatic reversal without any inquiry into prejudice. However, not every public trial violation leads to fundamental unfairness, in part because the right protects some interests that do not belong to the defendant. Thus, when a public trial violation is not preserved and raised on direct appeal, but is instead raised in the context of an IAC claim, the defendant must show prejudice in order to obtain relief. The reason for placing the burden on the defendant derives both from the nature of the error and the difference between a public trial violation preserved and raised on direct appeal, and a public trial violation raised as an IAC claim. When a courtroom closure is first raised in postconviction proceedings as an IAC claim, the trial court is deprived of the chance to cure the violation, and there are increased costs and uncertainties associated with the new trial because more time will have elapsed. Thus, a different standard is justified.

Petitioner is not entitled to a new trial because he failed to show prejudice resulting from his attorney’s failure to object to the two-day courtroom closure during jury selection. Prejudice is defined in different ways depending on the context in which it appears. Here, Weaver argued that even if he could not show a reasonable probability of a different outcome under Strickland v. Washington (1984) 466 US. 668, he was entitled to a new trial if his attorney’s failure to object to the courtroom closure rendered his trial fundamentally unfair. The court assumed without deciding that this interpretation was correct, and concluded petitioner failed to show prejudice under either standard. Specifically, Weaver offered no argument or evidence that there was a reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel’s failure to object to the courtroom closure, and the public trial violation did not render Weaver’s trial fundamentally unfair. Although Weaver’s mother and minister were excluded from the courtroom for two days, the trial did not take place in a secret or remote place; the closure was only during jury selection and the courtroom remained open during the evidentiary phase of the trial; the decision to close the courtroom was made by a court officer rather than a judge; the proceedings were observed by members of the venire who did not become jurors; and the record made of the proceedings did not indicate any other basis for concern. Weaver is not entitled to a new trial.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: