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Molestation Case Reversed Due to Improper Closure of Courtroom

November 10, 2016

In Jackson v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s child molestation convictions because the trial court closed the courtroom during the testimony of the alleged victim without following the proper procedures to safeguard the defendant’s right to a public trial.

The defendant was charged with molesting his stepdaughter. The State filed a pretrial motion to close the courtroom during the stepdaughter’s testimony to persons not necessary for the trial, particularly to the defendant’s extended family. The State argued that the testimony would be “very gruesome” because it concerned testimony of a personal and sexual nature. The defendant objected on the grounds that the girl was 16 years old at the time of trial and that there were no allegations that the offenses were committed by force or violence.

At trial, when the girl was called to testify, the court cleared the courtroom of unnecessary persons for the trial. The jury then convicted the defendant of incest, statutory rape, child molestation, and two counts of aggravated child molestation. He was sentenced to a total of 50 years to serve in prison.

On appeal, the defendant asserted that the trial court erred in closing the courtroom for three reasons: (1) the State did not advance an overriding interest to justify a closure, (2) the closure was overbroad and unnecessary to protect the interests advanced by the State, and (3) the trial court failed to make specific factual findings to show that the closure was necessary and narrowly tailored.

In response, the State asserted that the courtroom was only closed to the defendant’s family members and that the defendant objected only to a complete closure. The Court of Appeals held that the closure was a complete one because the State requested that the courtroom be closed to the defendant’s extended family “as well as any other persons or unnecessary courtroom personnel.” The courtroom was cleared in accordance with this request. The State then asserted that members of the press, allowed to remain in the courtroom, were courtroom personnel. The Court termed this argument “nonsense on stilts” as there was no evidence that any members of the press were even present for the trial.

The Court held that the closure was improper because the trial court did not make adequate findings to support the closure, including a consideration of reasonable alternatives. The trial court was required to enter a written order with such findings explaining why the closure was no broader than necessary before excluding members of the public from the trial. The trial court failed to satisfy these requirements, resulting in structural error.

Finally, the Court held that this error required reversal of the defendant’s convictions, noting that there is “no way to remedy that error short of a new trial.” As a result, the Court reversed the defendant’s convictions and remanded the case for a new trial.

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