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Right To Public Trial Limited During Testimony Of Child Sex Abuse Victim


criminal appeals closed courtroom during child sex abuse victim's testimony

United States v. LeDee

United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

No. 13-2363

Decided on: August 8, 2014

Sixth Amendment Right To Public Trial Limited During Testimony Of Child Sex Abuse Victim

Summary: Defendant was convicted of participating via webcam in the sexual abuse of an eight-year-old girl. To ensure the testimony of the underage victim at trial, the District Court on motion by the Government, closed the courtroom to all persons who were not directly involved in the trial, including the Defendant’s parents.

Defendant argues that the closure of the courtroom during the victim’s testimony violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial; that motion was denied by the District Court and the Defendant appealed to The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Court of Appeals held that a District Court might close the courtroom to all persons who do not have a direct interest in that case when a child victim of physical or sexual abuse testifies. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s closure of the courtroom.

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Issue: Whether the Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated when the district court closed the courtroom during a child’s testimony to all person’s who were not directly involved in the trial, including Defendant’s parents under 18 U.S.C § 3509 (e).

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that in order to close a courtroom in compliance with the Sixth Amendment 1) the closure must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced; 2) the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest; 3) the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding; and 4) the trial court must make findings adequate to support the closure.

The statutory basis for a federal District Court’s power to close a courtroom during the testimony of a minor witness is 18 U.S.C. § 3509(e), which permits closure where the District Court has found that requiring the minor witness to testify in open court would cause substantial psychological harm to the child or would result in the witness’s inability to effectively communicate.

Facts: The United States charged Defendant Michael LeDee with conspiracy to sexually exploit a child, sexual exploitation of a child, and receipt of child pornography. Defendant was convicted of participating via webcam in the sexual abuse of an eight-year-old girl, KO. To ensure the testimony of KO at trial, the District Court on motion by the Government, closed the courtroom to all persons who were not directly involved in the trial, including the Defendant’s parents. The District Court held that it would be no broader than necessary to protect that interest.

Defendant argues that the closure violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial; that motion was denied and the Defendant appealed to The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Court of Appeals held that a District Court may close the courtroom to everyone who does not have a direct interest in that case when a child victim of physical or sexual abuse testifies if the court determines that, by not doing so, would cause substantial psychological harm to the child or would result in the child’s inability to effectively communicate. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s closure of the courtroom.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that the Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was not violated because KO’s ability to effectively communicate about her abuse was at risk of being prejudiced and was sufficient to justify the closure. Under the pertinent statute, a District Court may close the courtroom to everyone who does not have a direct interest in that case when a child victim of physical or sexual abuse testifies if the court determines that, by not doing so, would cause substantial psychological harm to the child or would result in the child’s inability to effectively communicate, 18 U.S.C. § 3509(e).

However, the Sixth Amendment provides that the accused shall enjoy the right to a public trial. This right may give way in certain cases to other rights or interests. Such circumstances will be rare and the balance of those interests must be struck with special care, Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 45 1984.

     In order to close the courtroom in compliance with the Sixth Amendment 1) the closure must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced; 2) the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest; 3) the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding; and 4) the trial court must make findings adequate to support the closure.

Ensuring a child victim’s ability to effectively communicate is a compelling higher value that can justify closure, United States v. Yazzie, 743 F.3d 1278, 1287, 9th Cir. 2014. In this case, The Court of Appeals held that, because the closure at issue is a relatively narrow one, the Court does not need to demand compelling record evidence that the goal of communicating effectively is advanced by closing the courtroom to the public during KO’s testimony. The District Court’s common sense conclusion that KO would likely not be able to communicate in an open courtroom satisfies the undemanding inquiry.

The Court of Appeals held that this case did not demonstrate that every case could mandate closure. Rather, this was a tailored closure applied to one eight-year-old sex abuse victim. The District Court relied on an affidavit from KO’s father based on specific instances he has observed, and the effect press coverage has had on KO in the past, rather than a generalized or projected fear or discomfort.

    Defendant next argues that the closure was broader than necessary because the inclusion of two additional spectators; his parents, would not have prejudiced KO’s ability to testify. The Court of Appeals held that by excluding all of the public, including Defendant’s parents, allowed the District Judge to tell KO that when she took the stand, all of the people that were in the courtroom are the ones who had to be in the courtroom, as it was reasonably necessary to encourage KO’s effective communication. The Court held that a certain amount of line drawing is inherent in any closure decision.

As for reasonable alternatives to a courtroom closure, Defendant argues that by relocating the seats in the courtroom to make his parent’s inconspicuous to KO, or by allowing his parents to view KO’s testimony from a different room, may have been a reasonable alternative to the courtroom closure. The Court of Appeals held that the District Court did not have a duty to consider these alternatives because they are not reasonable solutions for ensuring that KO would be an uninhibited and effective witness. KO’S father’s affidavit established that KO had a particularized emotional fear of others witnessing the story of her sexual abuse.

The District Judge did not err in concluding that there were no reasonable alternatives to closure to ensure that KO would be able to communicate effectively. Relying on an affidavit from KO’s father, made particularized findings adequate to support closing the courtroom during KO’s testimony. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court.


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