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Sixth Amendment Doesn't Guarantee Family Seats at Voir Dire

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Close-knit families tend to support each other at major life events. Graduations. Weddings. Voir dire for a RICO trial jury selection.

But while it's admirable for families to stand by their accused loves ones, there's no constitutional guarantee that they will get to remain in the courtroom through every step of the trial.

Amilcar Gomez was sentenced to life imprisonment following his convictions for racketeering, murder in aid of racketeering, and unlawful possession of a firearm. On appeal, Gomez argued that his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated when the trial judge excluded his family during the voir dire of prospective jurors.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument that excluding family members from the courtroom during voir dire warranted a new trial.

The trial judge didn't specifically kick Gomez's family out of the courtroom because they were his family. The record indicates that the judge told Gomez's attorney that family members would have to step out for jury selection to make room for the jury pool. More importantly, Gomez's attorney didn't object. The attorney volunteered to ask Gomez's family to leave during voir dire.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution grants a criminal defendant the right to a public trial, which "extends to the voir dire of prospective jurors," but the right to a public trial is not absolute.

When an attorney doesn't contemporaneously object to a potential public trial violation, the alleged violation will be reviewed under the plain error standard.

Here, the Second Circuit concluded Gomez's public trial claim provided no basis for overturning his conviction, noting, "Even if the exclusion of the Gomez family members during the voir dire in this case was error, it cannot be viewed as one that affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. To the contrary, the fairness and public reputation of the proceeding would be called into serious question if a defendant were allowed to gain a new trial on the basis of the very procedure he had invited."

If your client will feel slighted when his family is barred from sharing the joy of his first jury selection, raise an objection at trial. You may not win a Sixth Amendment appeal, but at least you'll have stronger support for your claim.

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