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Accomodating Public Attendance at a Prison Trial

By | Jury Trial, Public Trial

Lilly v. State

Best Fort Worth Criminal defense attorneysThe Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees an accused the right to a public trial in all criminal prosecutions.

Appellant Conrad Lilly, was charged with two counts of assault on a public servant while he was in prison.  The trial court sua sponte convened his trial in the prison-chapel courtroom in lieu of the local courthouse.  Appellant objected to his case being tried in the prison chapel and moved for a change of venue, arguing that his 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated because “prisons are not open to the public and are more like military zones than public places.”  The trial court denied his change of venue request and the 11th Court of Appeals (Eastland) affirmed.

To support his claim, appellant pointed out the following facts to show that, as applied in his case, the prison chapel trial violated his constitutional rights:

  1. The prison is protected by double razor fences, locked metal doors, and high-security procedures;
  2. Only people listed on an inmate-defendant’s approved visitor list could enter the branch courthouse to attend proceedings (only 10 names can appear on that list and the names can only be modified once every 6 months);
  3. Media and other members of the public would be prohibited from entering unless TDCJ officials in Huntsville preapproved the media’s request;
  4. People attempting to attend the proceeding could be denied entrance if they wore offensive clothing; and
  5. Unaccompanied minors and people released from confinement within the last two years are prohibited from entering the prison at all.

In this case, “the court of appeals held that Appellant’s trial was not closed to the public because there was no evidence that anyone was ‘dissuaded from attempting’ to attend, and no one was actually prohibited from attending his trial.”  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with this analysis.  The focus of the inquiry, the CCA explained, “is not whether the defendant can show that someone was actually excluded.  Rather, a reviewing court must look to the totality of the evidence and determine whether the trial court fulfilled its obligation ‘to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trial.'”

[E]ven though many of the individual admittance policies in this case would not, standing alone, necessarily amount to a per se closure, the cumulative effect of the Unit’s policies undermines our confidence that every reasonable measure was taken to accommodate public attendance at Appellant’s trial.

Having found that Appellant’s trial was indeed closed to the public, the CCA further held that the trial court failed to make findings of fact on the record that justified closing Appellant’s trial.  Because Appellant’s 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated, the CCA reversed the judgments of the court of appeals and the trial court, and remanded the case for a new trial.

The CCA refrained from considering or commenting on whether prison trials are inherently violative of the 6th Amendment, noting that there could be occasions where a “public trial” is held in a prison.

Fort Worth criminal trial lawyer

Be the German Shepherd, Not the Yipping Chihuahua

By | Trial Advocacy

Fort Worth criminal trial lawyerPROSECUTOR POST – Here is a helpful tip from a Texas prosecutor on Trial Advocacy in the criminal courtroom:

After years of practicing in criminal courts, I’ve seen numerous courtroom styles from criminal defense attorneys. One of the most prominent is the “grandstand” (a.k.a. Posturing). I would define the “grandstand” as attempted behavior exhibited by an attorney to establish dominance in the courtroom. Please note that word – attempted. From yelling to whining to stomping around and slamming things on counsel’s table, I’ve seen it all. Sometimes this behavior isn’t intentional but actual passionate investment, but more often than not I can see it’s a show for the client.

The client wants the bulldog lawyer in the courtroom. At least that’s what I hear. I think some of what I’m referencing is an attempt by these lawyers to be that bulldog by “grandstanding.” However, in my experience, these attorneys that “grandstand” in court, end up looking like the yipping chihuahua instead of the bulldog. And it’s funny to see the look on the defendant’s face when he realizes he’s hired the yipping chihuahua.

The more effective style I’ve seen is the old German Shepherd approach. The attorney that comes in and exudes that high level of comfort in the courtroom. He’s professional to everyone (including state’s counsel) and acts in a way that sends the message to his client – “yes, I’ve been here several times before.” Does he “grandstand?” No. He establishes dominance by respecting the balance b/w the defense, the state and the bench. Does he bark? Sometimes. But only when there’s cause. And when he barks everyone hears it and respects it.

Prosecutor Post: It’s Not Personal…Really.

By | Trial Advocacy

A Contribution From our Texas prosecutor friend:

I had a discussion with a defense attorney today about the dynamic relationships that develop between prosecutors and defense attorneys.  Relationships that, like it or not, become very intricate in the resolution of criminal cases.  This conversation started after we had finished watching a heated exchange between a different prosecutor and defense attorney.  He started by pointing out how there’s not much to gain by creating a hostile relationship with a prosecutor.  He described his fear of creating problems for future clients because of bad past relationship with a prosecutor.

I explained how prosecutors are aware of that fear and how our goal is to set aside the personal aspect of negotiations and not to punish a defendant on account of who he happened to hire as his defense attorney.  We try and look at the case and defendant separately from the attorney.  He agreed he didn’t feel most prosecutors seek to punish the unfortunate client of a defense attorney who recklessly handles business with the prosecution, but quickly added how subconsciously it might be an underlying factor when a prosecutor decides how he’s going to handle a case.  Again, I stressed we try not to behave that way, but then again, I can’t speak for every prosecutor.

Common sense tells you that honey attracts more bees than vinegar and that pissing someone off on a consistent basis might render less than preferable results when it comes to working something out with that person.  The personal aspect of dealing in an adversarial system is often too hard for some attorneys to set aside.  So, they take things personally.  Negotiations are bound to get heated when you deal with one party protecting something (in this case the liberty of their client) and the other trying to take it away.  And it should!  Criminal cases shouldn’t be taken lightly by either side, but passion doesn’t have to trump professionalism.

There’s not really a how-to on not taking it personal.  Just something you have to practice I suppose.

Comment on Defendant's Right to Remain Silent

A Prosecutor’s Comment on a Defendant’s Right Not to Testify

By | Jury Trial

The Extent of a Defendant’s Right Not to Testify?

Comment on Defendant's Right to Remain SilentIf a criminal defendant takes the stand during trial on the merits and denies culpability, but then, after being convicted, chooses not to testify during the punishment phase of the trial, may the prosecutor comment during closing that the defendant has “not taken responsibility for the crime?”

The 1st District Court of Appeals (Houston) says NO. But what about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals?

In Randolph v. State, No. PD-0404-10 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011), appellant testified during guilt/innocence he was never at the scene of the crime and offered the jury an alibi. After the jury convicted him, he did not take the stand during the punishment phase of the trial. The prosecutor argued during close (in the punishment phase):

You heard from him, you heard his version and you dismissed it by finding him guilty. He has not taken responsibility for this crime.

On appeal, appellant relied upon Swallow v. State, 829 S.W.2d 223 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992) to argue that the prosecutor improperly commented on his failure to testify during the punishment phase of trial. The 1st COA agreed and held the prosecution violated the precedent set forth in Swallow. The CCA didn’t buy it, however, holding:

[A] punishment-stage remark on the defendant’s failure to accept responsibility may be fair game if the defendant, in his guilt-stage testimony, denied responsibility for his actions or for the crime.

The 1st COA held this closing argument remark was the same as the remark given by the state in Swallow, but the CCA distinguishes:

But in this case the prosecutor said nothing about remorse or lack of remorse. She spoke only of “responsibility of the crime” – responsibility that appellant explicitly denied during his testimony. This Court, in Swallow, inadvertently combined the apples of “remorse” (which is generally expressed only after accepting responsibility) with the oranges of “responsibility.”

The CCA further explained:

The prosecutor may comment on any testimony given by the defendant in the guilt stage, and, if the defendant expressly or impliedly denies criminal responsibility during that testimony, the prosecutor may comment on that denial.

Dissenting Judge Meyers asserts:

By referring to the fact that Appellant did not take responsibility for the crime, the state pointed out that the defendant did not testify during punishment phase of his trial. The majority complicates the matter by analyzing the definitions of the words used by the prosecutor, rather than considering their obvious meaning – thus creating a horrible Hobson’s choice for the defendant, an indiscernible dilemma for the trial judge, and an appellate record that will be difficult to decipher.

Depositions for Criminal Cases

By | Trial Advocacy

Depositions are most often used in civil cases.  But that doesn’t have to be the case.  Depositions can be quite effective in criminal cases as well, especially cases that have out-of-town witnesses, or others that may later become unavailable for trial.  The latest issue of The Champion, the newsletter of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), has a good article about Taking an Effective Deposition in a Criminal Case.

Chapter 39 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure governs depositions for criminal cases in Texas.  That is the place to start if you think a deposition might be appropriate for your case.

*A note from past experience: If you are planning to take a deposition of a foreign national in another country, please be sure to research the host nation’s laws on depositions.  I almost messed that one up with a deposition I had to take in Okinawa.

Court Reporter Record

If a Tree Falls in the Forest… | The Importance of a Court Reporter

By | Criminal Defense

Court Reporter RecordMuch like the existential question about the tree falling in the forest, if something occurs during a session of court and there’s no court reporter around to hear it (or transcribe it), did it really occur? More importantly, if the losing party wishes to appeal a ruling that took place during the time when the court reporter was not around, can that party prevail? The simple answer, according to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is NO.

In Davis v. State, the appellant challenged a certain ruling (the granting of a continuance over defense objection), but there was no record of the session of court in which the ruling was made. Accordingly, the appellate court could not determine whether the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion. The appellant asserted that the trial court had a duty to make a record of the hearing and that any deficiency in the record must work against the State as the party that made the motion. Not so, held the CCA, overruling the 5th District Court of Appeals (Dallas).

The CCA explained:

Our case law…imposes an additional, independent burden on the appealing party to make a record demonstrating that [a certain] error occurred in the trial court. This includes a burden to object when the official court reporter is not present, as he is required to be under Rule 13.1, in order to preserve and error that may occur for appeal.

Even though the State had that burden at trial, the appellant, as the appealing party, had an obligation to present a record in the court of appeals that demonstrates he in entitled to appellate relief.

And with that, the CCA overturned the 5th District Court of Appeals, and affirmed appellant’s conviction.

Moral of the story for criminal defense lawyers: Always request (under section 52.046 of the Government Code) that a court reporter be present for open sessions of court. You never know what you might want to appeal later. And if for some reason the court reporter isn’t present and you get an adverse ruling, make a later record of it. Give the appellate court something to go on, or else you will certainly lose.  As the CCA put it, “it is the appellant who must bear the consequences of such a definicency in the record.”

Note: The CCA mentioned in footnote 19 that it has yet to weigh in on the question discussed in Polasek v. State, 16 S.W.3d 82 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2000, pet. Ref’d) regarding whether Tex. R. App. P. 13.1 requires a court reporter at all sessions or whether section 52.046(a)(1) trumps. Section 52.046(a)(1) requires the court reporter only when one of the parties makes a request.

Judge Johnson concurred, but it is not clear (to me) why.

Voir Dire in Texas

A Proper Voir Dire Question

By | Trial Advocacy

Voir Dire in TexasWhen conducting voir dire of prospective jurors (the venire panel), Texas law says that a lawyer cannot ask a “commitment question.” The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals defines a “commitment question” as

a question that commits a prospective juror to resolve or to refrain from resolving an issue a certain way after learning of a particular fact. Commitment questions are impermissible unless the law requires a commitment, and the law does not require a commitment on what facts a juror will consider during sentencing.

The CCA also cautions, however, that “a trial court abuses its discretion if it disallows a proper voir dire question.”

In Davis v. State, a case decided by the CCA last month, the defense counsel asked the venire panel the follow question:

Let’s talk about factors in [assessing] the sentence in a case of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, what factors do y’all think are important?

Despite counsel’s fine use of the word “y’all,” and without any objection to the question by the State, the trial judge interjected, saying, “that’s a commitment question. You can’t ask that question.” On appeal, the 14th District Court of Appeal (Houston) agreed.

The CCA now reverses, holding that

appellant’s counsel asked “what factors…are important” in sentencing. This did not ask the jurors how particular facts would influence their deliberations. This was an inquiry into the jurors’ general philosophies.

There you have it. Cases regarding commitment questions are always very fact dependant, but for now, we can add one more to the list. Counsel may properly ask: What factors are important in assessing the sentence in a [name your offense] case.”

Presiding Judge Keller penned the lone dissent.  She deems the question an improper commitment question.