Weaver v. Massachusetts:
Whether Prejudice Is Required if Trial Counsel Makes an Unreasonable Error
The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument on whether a convicted criminal defendant is required to show "prejudice" when the trial attorney's error is held to have been "structural." Up to this point, states and federal court are split on whether this prejudice requirement is necessary. This case is important for all structural errors that occur in courts because the result has the potential to significantly affect the likelihood of reversal on appeal for many criminal convictions.
The Applicable Law in this Case
A constitutional right of public access to criminal proceedings is granted to individuals under the First and Sixth Amendments. Courts have decided that violations of this public access requirement constitute a “structural error”, which is a category including errors that often do not require prejudice to be shown. Claims for the unconstitutional ineffective assistance of counsel, however, often require a defendant to demonstrate that prejudice exists. A court finds prejudice when a reasonable probability exists that a case would have a different outcome if not for the error made by legal counsel. Weaver’s case presents the question of whether the no-prejudice requirement for structural errors or the prejudice requisite for ineffective assistance of counsel claims applies to the case.
The Facts of the Weaver Case
In 2013, the sixteen-year-old, Kentel Myrone Weaver was arrested for the murder of another 15-year-old, Germaine Rucker, in Boston. Weaver confessed to the crime, and there was no dispute about Weaver’s guilt. Although approximately 90 potential jurors were assembled for jury selection, the courtroom could not accommodate all of the jurors. Weaver’s mother and other supporters were repeatedly denied access to the courtroom by a court security officer on the basis that the courtroom was closed for jury selection. After this denial, Weaver’s attorney refused to raise an objection because he believed that the closure was constitutional.
Five years after the trial, Weaver filed a motion for a new trial based on his trial attorney’s failure to object to the closing of the courtroom during jury selection. The judge at the new trial concluded after an evidentiary hearing that there had been a full rather than partial courtroom closure and that the court had not satisfied the Sixth Amendment right to a “public trial”. Denial of the right to a “public trial” has been found by the Supreme Court to constitute a “structural error” that requires no showing of prejudice. The trial court, however, denied Weaver’s motion for a new trial because the court found that a claim of unconstitutional, ineffective assistance of counsel requires a showing of prejudice.
Weaver appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). The SJC which found that closing the courtroom constituted a Sixth Amendment violation. However, the court found that when a closure is not objected to at trial (hence the claim of "ineffective assistance of counsel") that a prejudice requirement applies. The court concluded that Weaver had not satisfied the prejudice requirement.
Issues Raised in Weaver’s Supreme Court Brief
Weaver’s brief to the United States Supreme Court argues that no criminal trial is “fundamentally fair” if the trial occurs in a closed manner. Weaver argues that decisions made by Massachusetts courts are incompatible with the Sixth Amendment’s public trial right..
The Brief Presented by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Massachusetts’ brief argues that the no-prejudice standard for structural errors does not apply to cases involving ineffective assistance of counsel. The brief also claims that some types of structural error include circumstances that are inherently prejudicial but that these elements are much less likely in the case of Weaver. By ruling for Weaver, the brief argues, courts would allow lawyers who perceive impending structural errors in a trial to gain automatic reversal by saying nothing at the moment that an error occurs. Lastly, the brief notes a 2014 Supreme Court opinion in Glebe v. Frost which notes that the Supreme Court has never ruled that a structural error allows the reversal of a case without a showing of prejudice.
The Future of the Case
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the case next Wednesday. The Supreme Court Still also has the authority to dismiss the case without issuing a decision. Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Antonin Scalia have previously argued against applying the requirement for prejudice too broadly. With the introduction of new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, however, it remains uncertain how this case will resolve. Even if the Supreme Court does not settle the case, the issues introduced by Weaver’s case present an area of law that remains unanswered and would influence the nature of criminal appeals.