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People v. Evans

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division

December 13, 2016

DARRYL EVANS, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 08 CR 16639, The Honorable Maura Slattery Boyle, Judge, presiding.

          HYMAN PRESIDING JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Neville and Mason concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 In 2014, a jury convicted Darryl Evans of murder. Before voir dire, the trial court refused to allow Evans's step-grandmother to remain in the courtroom due to worries about possible juror contamination and the courtroom's small gallery which could barely accommodate the 45 prospective jurors which the court had already summoned. In so doing, the trial court violated the right to a public trial, and as it was structural error, we must reverse Evans's conviction on that ground. Because of our disposition, we need not reach the other contentions of error.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 As the trial court was about to begin voir dire, it asked why someone was sitting in the gallery. Evans's attorney explained that Evans's step-grandmother, Ms. Peterson, was there. The trial court immediately responded, "I'm going to ask you to leave and come back on Monday." Evans's attorney told the trial court that she had explained to Ms. Peterson "the rules of decorum, " and that "she is not to speak to any venire person." The trial court said "she's been fine, " but then stated that it would ask Ms. Peterson to leave during jury selection anyway because "we won't have enough room." Evans's attorney asked if Ms. Peterson could be "segregated" from the venire, because "it is a public trial." The trial court said that there was no "contamination" but would ask Ms. Peterson to leave anyway. Evans's attorney objected. Voir dire included a number of peremptory challenges and a challenge for cause before a jury was selected.

         ¶ 4 After testimony began, the trial court made another statement for the record regarding the voir dire. The court stated that it was not prohibiting anyone from attending, but asked Ms. Peterson to leave because the courtroom had only three rows of seats and 45 potential jurors, and it would be impossible to separate Ms. Peterson from the venire to avoid contamination.

         ¶ 5 The jury convicted Evans of first degree murder. In arguing Evans's motion for a new trial, his attorney raised the issue of Ms. Peterson being barred from voir dire and stated that there would have been enough room to accommodate her and that she was not a risk to contaminate the jury pool. The trial court stated that the courtroom only contained three rows of benches, and it barred Ms. Peterson from voir dire due to the small size of the courtroom and the need to prevent her from contaminating the jury. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial and sentenced Evans to 100 years of imprisonment.

         ¶ 6 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 7 Evans argues that his right to a public trial was denied when the trial court barred Evans's step-grandmother, Ms. Peterson, from viewing the voir dire. We hold that this denial was structural error, and we must reverse.

         ¶ 8 The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. VI) guarantees the accused the right to a public trial, and this right extends to voir dire of prospective jurors. Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 212-13 (2010). A violation of this right falls into the limited category of "structural errors, " which require automatic reversal without the need to show prejudice. People v. Thompson, 238 Ill.2d 598, 608-09 (2010) (structural error category includes complete denial of counsel, trial before biased judge, racial discrimination in grand jury selection, denial of self-representation, denial of public trial, and defective reasonable doubt instruction). These errors are systemic, "erode the integrity of the judicial process, " and "undermine the fairness of the defendant's trial." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. at 608. An error will be designated structural only if it renders the trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable means of determining guilt or innocence. Id. at 609.

         ¶ 9 This is a fact-specific inquiry and we review the totality of the circumstances. We observe that the trial court's rationale for excluding Ms. Peterson changed slightly; initially, the court was not concerned that Ms. Peterson would contaminate the potential jurors. But we will address both of the trial court's reasons for excluding her-the contamination of potential jurors and the small size of the courtroom.

         ¶ 10 To justify closing a trial proceeding, we examine: (i) whether there exists an " 'overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, ' " (ii) whether the closure is no broader than necessary to protect that interest, (iii) whether the trial court considered " 'reasonable alternatives' " to closing the proceeding, and (iv) whether the trial court made adequate findings to support the closure. People v. Willis, 274 Ill.App.3d 551, 553 (1995) (quoting Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 48 (1984)).

         ¶ 11 We will assume that preventing juror contamination is an "overriding interest." Willis, 274 Ill.App.3d at 554; People v. Taylor, 244 Ill.App.3d 460, 467 (1993). But, we are not convinced that the interest in preventing contamination was "likely to be prejudiced" merely by Ms. Peterson's presence. No evidence suggested Ms. Peterson would have attempted to communicate with or intimidate potential jurors; in fact, Evans's counsel had already instructed her not to communicate with the jury pool. See Taylor, 244 Ill.App.3d at 468 (first part of test not met where there was not "a scintilla of evidence" that defendant's siblings would attempt to influence jurors); Gibbons v. Savage, 555 F.3d 112, 117 (2d Cir. 2009) ("Absent some indication that the defendant's mother might communicate improperly with members of the venire, the mere fact that some might be in close proximity to her did not raise a meaningful risk to taint the entire jury pool, as the judge suggested." (Internal quotation omitted.)). There must be a specific threat of jury contamination to meet this standard. See, e.g., Willis, 274 Ill.App.3d at 554 (where defendant's brother had previously threatened state witness, this might justify exclusion of brother from voir dire, but not other family members). As the U.S. Supreme Court has pointed out, "[t]he generic risk of jurors overhearing prejudicial remarks, unsubstantiated by any ...

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