Facts of the Case
When defendant 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 defendant’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Denfendant was convicted of murder and a related charge. Five years later, he filed a motion for a new trial in state court, arguing, inter alia, 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 defendant’s ineffective-assistance claim because he had not shown prejudice.
Must a defendant who asserts a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel demonstrate prejudice when the alleged ineffective assistance resulted in a structural error?
In the context of the violation of a right to a public trial during jury selection, when the structural error was first raised via an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the defendant must demonstrate that he suffered prejudice in order to secure a new trial. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the 7-2 majority. The Court held that structural errors were so fundamental that they were errors in the trial process itself and therefore were not susceptible to harmless error analysis. An error may still be structural despite not resulting in fundamental unfairness each time it occurred. The right to a public trial was one such error. Generally, a structural error that the defendant objected to at trial and raised a direct appeal automatically allowed for a new trial. However, when the defendant did not preserve the issue but only raised it later within the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the defendant must meet the higher standard of the ineffective assistance claim and show that he suffered prejudice. When a structural error claim was raised at trial or on direct appeal, the systemic costs of remedying the error were relatively low. When the error was raised through an ineffective assistance of counsel claim during post-conviction proceedings, however, the costs were much higher, which justified placing this burden on the defendant. In this case, the defendant was unable to meet his burden to show that the violation of his right to a public trial was prejudicial to the outcome of his case, so he was not entitled to a new trial.Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that it is not clear from precedent that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extended to the jury selection phase. Additionally, a defendant cannot establish that he suffered prejudice sufficient to support a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel by showing that his counsel’s errors rendered the trial fundamentally unfair. Justice Neil Gorsuch joined in the concurring opinion. In his separate opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. wrote that this case called for a straightforward application of the ineffective assistance of counsel test. To prevail on such a claim, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was defective and that defect resulted in prejudice to the outcome of the trial. Because the defendant in this case could not meet that burden, he was not entitled to relief. Justice Gorsuch joined in the opinion concurring in the judgment.Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissent in which he argued that a defendant who successfully demonstrated that his attorney’s deficient performance resulted in a structural error should not have to meet the additional requirement of showing that the error was prejudicial. Precedent had established that structural errors were categorically exempt from harmless error analysis. In this case, however, the majority opinion subjected the public-trial violation to precisely the examination that the Court had previously established was inappropriate and impossible for structural errors. Justice Elena Kagan joined in the dissent.
- Citation: 582 US _ (2017)
- Granted: Jan 13, 2017
- Argued: Apr 19, 2017
- Decided Jun 22, 2017