Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently confronted an issue pitting the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a right to a public trial with the public interest in maintaining the anonymity of some witnesses whose privacy would be violated if forced to testify in open court, as in cases of rape or other alleged sexual assaults.
The court ruled that a trial judge may close some court proceedings from the public. Before doing so, however, the judge must provide a detailed factual record justifying his decision that there was an overriding interest in shielding information from the public from testimony provided under oath.
Henderson County resident Richard Rollins met a woman in June 2007 at a Seventh Day Adventist “camp meeting” soon after he had been released from prison. They started dating but by November the relationship started to deteriorate. Even so, they continued to see each other. On July 3, 2008, the woman came home to find Rollins working on a drainage ditch in her front yard. She told him to leave and not come back.
The next evening, she returned home to find Rollins’ car in her driveway. He called to her from the back of the house. She told him to leave; he got angry. A friend called during the argument, and the woman said she wanted police to come. When officers arrived, they heard the woman crying and saying, “don’t hurt me.” When they knocked, Rollins closed the exterior door and dead-bolted it. Police broke down the door and arrested Rollins.
At trial, Rollins was convicted of non-felonious breaking or entering, first-degree kidnapping, second-degree rape, and resisting a public officer.
On appeal, Rollins contended that his constitutional right to a public trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, was violated when Superior Court Judge Philip Ginn ordered all spectators removed from the courtroom while the woman testified.
The right to a public trial is not absolute. State law allows for such closures and federal courts have upheld them if they are reasonable given the circumstances.
Rollins argued that Ginn’s decision violated his rights because the judge made no findings of facts to support his decision to close the courtroom.
“Defendant argues that the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial when the trial judge temporarily closed the courtroom … without engaging in the four-part test set forth in Waller v. Georgia. We agree,” wrote Judge Robert C. Hunter for the N.C. Court of Appeals.
In Waller, a 1984 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a four-part test to balance the competing interests: (1) “the party seeking to close the hearing 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) “it must make findings adequate to support the closure.”
North Carolina courts have not addressed the level of detail that findings of fact must satisfy when a judge orders portions of a trial to be shielded from the public. Various federal appeals courts have adopted different standards. The N.C. Court of Appeals found appropriate the standard used by the 4th U.S. Circuit, which includes North Carolina. This was established in a 2000 case called Bell v. Jarvis.
“We do interpret Bell to mean that there must be adequate findings, coupled with the record evidence, such that a reviewing court can examine the trial court’s ruling,” wrote Hunter.
The state appeals court also laid out a way forward in Rollins’ case.
“Given the limited closure in the present case and the fact that the trial court did not utilize the Waller four-part test, we hold that the proper remedy is to remand this case for a hearing on the propriety of the closure,” wrote Hunter.
If, on remand, a judge determines that the trial should not have been closed to the public during the victim’s testimony, then Rollins is entitled to a new trial. If the judge determines that the closure was appropriate, Rollins may still challenge that determination before the Court of Appeals.
The case is State v. Rollins, (11-1437).
Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.