Alexander v. State

Decision Date15 March 2022
Docket NumberS21G0112
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Bethel, Justice

A Banks County jury found Stephen Alexander guilty of several sexual offenses against his stepdaughters, both of whom were minors during Alexander's trial. At trial, the two victims and a child advocate testified in a courtroom that was partially closed to spectators at the direction of the trial court.

As discussed below, the improper closure of a courtroom is considered a "structural" error that results in reversal of a defendant's conviction on direct appeal if the error was committed over objection. Alexander's trial counsel, however, did not object. Thus, this case involves a criminal defendant who is seeking to challenge the closure of a courtroom solely through a Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (104 S.Ct 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674) (1984).

Relying on this Court's decision in Reid v. State, 286 Ga. 484, 488 (3) (b) (690 S.E.2d 177) (2010), the trial court and the Court of Appeals determined that the proper Strickland analysis requires a defendant in this posture to demonstrate actual prejudice to prevail and rejected Alexander's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to show any such prejudice. See Alexander v. State, 356 Ga.App. 392, 394-395 (2) (a) (847 S.E.2d 383) (2020). Alexander maintains that post-Reid authority from the Supreme Court of the United States requires a different analysis, see Weaver v. Massachusetts, ___ U.S. ___(137 S.Ct. 1899, 198 L.Ed.2d 420) (2017), and urges us to revisit the question of what a defendant must demonstrate when challenging a courtroom closure through a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. We granted certiorari to determine the soundness of Reid in light of Weaver.

Although Weaver discussed a "fundamental unfairness" test as a potential alternative to demonstrating prejudice arising from counsel's failure to object to a courtroom closure, the United States Supreme Court neither adopted that test in Weaver nor held that such a test was satisfied in the case before it. In short, Weaver's discussion of a fundamental unfairness test was merely dicta and it created no binding Sixth Amendment precedent. Moreover, we view our decision in Reid as a faithful application of Strickland and its requirement that the defendant demonstrate a reasonable probability that an alleged error by counsel affected the outcome of his trial. Thus, as discussed more fully below, we adhere to the holding of Reid that a showing of actual prejudice is required to establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel arising from the failure to object to a courtroom closure and affirm.

1. Factual Background

We briefly recount facts of this case that are relevant to the issue before us. Alexander was charged with multiple sexual offenses against his two stepdaughters, both of whom were under the age of 16 at the time of Alexander's trial. Before trial, the State requested that the "courtroom be cleared" during the victims' testimony without stating any grounds for this request. Alexander's counsel replied, "I certainly don't oppose that. I think it would be appropriate." The trial court immediately announced that the courtroom gallery would be cleared when those witnesses testified. The prosecutor then informed the trial court that the victims requested that their uncle be permitted to remain in the courtroom during their testimony. After the uncle was identified in the courtroom gallery, the trial court replied, "Okay. All right."

After opening statements, the trial court excused the jury and then announced, "I am going to, on request from counsel from both sides, go ahead and ask that the gallery be cleared, except for the uncle, and we'll go from there." The older victim testified first, followed by the child advocate who had interviewed her after she disclosed the abuse. Then the younger victim testified. During the testimony of these three witnesses, the courtroom's gallery was cleared of all spectators except the victims' uncle. Alexander's parents were among those who were asked to leave the courtroom.[1]

The victims testified at length about a years-long history of sexual abuse by Alexander. The child advocate, who was qualified as an expert in forensic interviewing and child sexual abuse, testified generally about the process of conducting forensic interviews of suspected victims of child sexual abuse and specifically about his interview of the older victim after she disclosed the abuse. An audio and video recording of the interview was admitted during the advocate's testimony and played for the jury. The advocate testified that, based on his experience, it was his opinion that the older victim's "disclosure and interview are consistent with a child who's experienced sexual abuse."

After the testimony of the younger victim, the spectators who had been asked to leave the gallery were invited back into the courtroom.[2] The remaining witnesses for the State and defense testified with the courtroom open.[3] The jury ultimately found Alexander guilty of multiple counts of rape, statutory rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, incest, and false imprisonment, and the trial court sentenced him to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 125 years.

Alexander thereafter moved for a new trial. At the hearing on the motion, Alexander testified that he asked one of his trial attorneys why his family members had to leave the courtroom. Alexander testified that his attorney said "We'll check into it." Alexander testified that he wanted his family members to be in the courtroom and did not want them to be removed. Alexander also testified that his mother and father, who were asked to leave the courtroom, had "a good relationship" with the victims and that he believed their presence in the courtroom "would have helped maybe get the truth out."

One of Alexander's trial attorneys likewise testified that "[Alexander] wanted his family to be in the courtroom at all times." Counsel explained that he "should have objected to [the partial closure] because . . . I knew then and I know now what the law is and I should have objected, but I did not." Counsel also testified that there was no strategic reason to withhold an objection and that "[i]t just did not occur to [him]."

Relying on this Court's decision in Reid, the trial court rejected Alexander's claim of ineffective assistance arising from the failure to object to the partial courtroom closure. Alexander appealed, but, also relying on Reid, the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling. See Alexander, 356 Ga.App. at 394-395 (2) (a). We granted Alexander's petition for a writ of certiorari.[4]

2. The Right to a Public Trial, Structural Error, and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial[.]" Before excluding the public from any stage of a criminal trial, the party seeking to close the courtroom "must advance an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced" if the courtroom remains open. (Citation omitted.) Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 214 (130 S.Ct. 721, 175 L.Ed.2d 675) (2010). In addition, "the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect that interest," and "the trial court must consider reasonable alternatives" to the closure, even "when they are not offered by the parties." (Citation omitted.) Id. The trial court "must make findings adequate to support the closure." (Citation omitted.) Id. The Sixth Amendment right to a public trial is applicable to the states. See Purvis v. State, 288 Ga. 865, 866 (1) (708 S.E.2d 283) (2011).

The Georgia Constitution also limits the authority of the trial court to close a courtroom. Article I, Section I, Paragraph XI (a) provides that, in criminal cases, the defendant "shall have a public . . . trial[.]" As we discussed in Purvis,

Georgia law regarding the public aspect of hearings in criminal cases is more protective of the concept of open courtrooms than federal law. Our state constitution point-blankly states that criminal trials shall be public. We see no friction between these state and federal constitutional provisions, properly interpreted, since the objectives of both are identical: access to judicial hearings for the public and fair trials for criminal defendants.

(Emphasis in original; citation and punctuation omitted.) Id.

Georgia statutory law mandates the partial closure of a courtroom when a person under the age of 16 testifies in a criminal case concerning a sexual offense, although the statute permits certain individuals, including the defendant's immediate family members, to remain in the courtroom. See OCGA § 17-8-54[5]; see also Scott v State, 306 Ga 507, 513 (832 S.E.2d 426) (2019) (Peterson, J, concurring) (noting that OCGA § 17-8-54 imposes a mandatory closure rule and discussing concerns about the constitutionality of such a rule).[6]

Here Alexander argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to the trial court's partial closure of the courtroom. He argues that the partial closure deprived him of his public-trial right under the Sixth Amendment when the trial court failed to conduct any inquiry or make any findings pursuant to Presley regarding the interests to be advanced by the closure, whether the closure was broader than necessary to advance those interests, and whether there were alternatives to closure. See Weaver, 137 S.Ct. at 1909 (II) (B) (noting that a public-trial violation can occur "simply because the trial court omits to make the proper findings before closing the...

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