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Court Closure Leads to Reversal of Rape and Molestation Charges

February 23, 2020

The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s total closure of the courtroom during the alleged victim’s testimony was improper as it failed to conduct a Waller analysis to determine whether closing the courtroom was warranted. As a result, the Court reversed the defendant’s rape and child molestation convictions.

In Spikes v. State, the defendant was indicted for the offenses of aggravated sodomy, rape, false imprisonment, and four counts of child molestation. The alleged victim in the case was a 13-year-old girl. At trial, the defendant was convicted of rape and two of the child molestation counts.

On appeal, the defendant contended that the trial court erred when it decided to completely close the courtroom during the alleged victim’s testimony, arguing that it violated his constitutional right to a public trial.

Under Georgia law, a trial court is not permitted to exclude the public from any part of a criminal trial without first determining whether there is an overriding interest that warrants the closure. Also, if the court does in fact decide to close the courtroom, the closure must be as narrow as necessary to protect that interest, considering whether there are any other reasonable alternatives to excluding the public from the proceeding. The trial court’s findings in support of any decision to close the courtroom must be expressly stated on the record.

In reviewing a trial court’s decision to close the courtroom during the trial, the first question is whether it constituted a total closure or just a partial closure. A partial closure is when the court permits some members of the public to remain in the courtroom, while a total closure occurs when the court excludes everyone. The Court of Appeals noted that while there is a compelling State interest in protecting the alleged victims of sexual offenses against children, a trial court must first conduct the Waller analysis in order to support a total closure of the courtroom.

The Court explained that, in this case, the trial court announced that it was closing the courtroom to everyone except for essential courtroom personnel. The defendant objected and specifically requested that the defendant’s family members be permitted to remain in the courtroom. The trial court denied the request.

The Court held that this constituted a total closure of the courtroom which required the trial court to first determine whether such a closure was warranted. The Court rejected the State’s argument that this was just a partial closure pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 17-8-54, pointing out that the statute exempts from the closure the immediate families of the parties as well as “newspaper reporters [and] broadcasters.” Moreover, the trial court expressly permitted the alleged victim’s mother to remain in the courtroom during the child’s testimony, but not the defendant’s family.

The Court also explained that while the trial court briefly alluded to protecting the child’s privacy, a trial court’s findings must be “specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the closure order was properly entered.” It concluded that this statement was insufficient to meet the requirements of  the Waller analysis.

In finding that the defendant is entitled to a new trial, the Court stated that it was bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent to reverse his convictions. The Court held that it could not find the trial court’s error to be harmless since “the court closed the courtroom during the most critical testimony of the trial itself. There is no way to remedy that error short of a new trial.”

As a result, the Court reversed the defendant’s rape and molestation convictions and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.

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