Dad wrongly barred from jury selection for son-court

James A. Cohen in News & Insight, May 10, 2011

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NEW YORK, May 10 (Reuters) - A man whose father was barred from the courtroom during jury selection has won a second shot at freedom.

The New York Court of Appeals overturned the drug conviction of Roy "Reality" Martin, 40, who is serving a nine-year sentence for third-degree criminal possession of crack cocaine.

The court said removing the father violated Martin's constitutional right to a public trial. While judges have the discretion to close a courtroom to the public, that discretion must only be exercised when unusual circumstances necessitate it, Judge Carmen Ciparick wrote in the decision.

Martin went on trial in 2008. Just before the start of jury selection, Acting Supreme Court Justice Thomas Carroll ejected Martin's father from the courtroom. Jury selection lasted two days.

Carroll put forward two possible reasons: that every seat would be occupied by a potential juror and a concern that the defendant's father might influence jurors, according to court papers.

The Court of Appeals said, "neither of these concerns, without more, rises to the level of 'an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced.' Absent a specific threat that a spectator may influence a prospective juror, it is improper to close the courtroom for that reason."

The trial court did not consider alternatives to closing the courtroom, the decision said. "There is nothing in the record that shows that the court could not have accommodated defendant's father," the ruling said.

Martin's attorney Katherine Levine declined comment.

Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the Kings County District Attorney's office, said: "We are reviewing the decision and considering our options."

The Court of Appeals ruling relies on a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Presley v. Georgia (U.S. 130 S. Ct. 721-2010). In that decision, the justices ruled trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials, and some possibilities include reserving one or more rows for the public or instructing the jury not to engage or interact with audience members.

The Court of Appeals may be one of the first state courts to follow the U.S. Supreme Court decision, said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.

The New York case is the People v. Roy Martin, New York Court of Appeals, No. 15.

For Martin: Katherine Levine of Appellate Advocates.

For the People: Assistant District Attorney Sholom Twersky of Kings County District Attorney's Office. (Reporting by Jennifer Golson)