People v. Woodward

Decision Date21 December 1992
Docket NumberNo. S026586,S026586
Citation14 Cal.Rptr.2d 434,4 Cal.4th 376,841 P.2d 954
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 841 P.2d 954, 20 Media L. Rep. 2253 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Johnie Monroe WOODWARD, Defendant and Appellant.

Timothy J. Foley, San Francisco, under appointment by the Supreme Court, Cliff Gardner, San Francisco, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, Charles H. James, Public Defender, and William W. Veale, Deputy Public Defender, for defendant and appellant.

Steinhart & Falconer, San Francisco, James F. Brelsford, San Francisco, Roger R. Myers, Lori A. Shoemaker and Mary Paul Nash as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and appellant.

Daniel E. Lungren, Atty. Gen., George Williamson, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., Ronald A. Bass and John H. Sugiyama, Asst. Attys. Gen., Mark S. Howell, Aileen Bunney

[841 P.2d 955] and Sharon Rosen Leib, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

LUCAS, Chief Justice.

In this criminal trial, after all the witnesses had testified, all the evidence had been admitted, and the prosecutor's closing jury arguments had commenced, the trial court, without consulting defendant or his counsel, permitted the bailiff to lock the courtroom doors and post a sign that read, in part, "trial in progress--please do not enter." The sign remained posted and the doors locked for about 90 minutes while the prosecutor completed his closing argument. Courtroom spectators who were already present were not required to leave, and (as the sign indicated) additional spectators were permitted to enter the courtroom at designated recesses. As will appear, we conclude that the temporary "closure" did not violate defendant's fundamental constitutional right to a public trial. (See U.S. Const., amends. VI, XIV; Cal. Const., art. I, § 15; see also Pen.Code, § 686, subd. 1.) For convenience, and consistent with the usage adopted by the parties in their briefs, we use the term "temporary closure" throughout this opinion to describe the trial court's action in locking the courtroom doors and posting a "do not enter" sign. We stress, however, that the public was never excluded from the courtroom, which remained "open" to all previously seated spectators and any other members of the public who wished to enter during designated recess periods. Although the court erred in failing to notify defendant before closing the courtroom to additional spectators, that error was clearly harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we conclude the Court of Appeal erred in reversing defendant's conviction.


Defendant Johnie Monroe Woodward was charged with murder, possessing a concealable weapon, grand theft, assault with a deadly weapon, and related enhancements. The jury found him guilty of second degree murder, and guilty as charged on the remaining counts and enhancements. On appeal, defendant asserted, among other claims, that he was denied his constitutional right to a public trial. The Court of Appeal agreed and, accordingly, declined to reach the remaining appellate issues.

It is unnecessary to recite additional facts underlying defendant's various offenses. As relevant to the issue before us, the record shows as follows: On March 13, 1990, following the completion of the prosecutor's closing arguments, the trial was recessed briefly during the afternoon session. On returning from the recess, defense counsel observed a sign on the courtroom door which read: "Trial in progress--Please do not enter--Breaks 11:00-11:15, 12:00-1:30, 3:00-3:15. Direct questions to bailiff in rm. 221." The sign also contained an arrow pointing to room 221, which room served as the judge's chambers.

Defense counsel promptly moved for a mistrial, asserting denial of a public trial. The court denied the motion. The court first acknowledged that not only was the sign posted, but the courtroom doors were locked during a portion of the prosecutor's closing argument. According to the court, the courtroom was the situs of the probate department, where various counsel seeking ex parte orders were apt to cause "constant interruptions." The bailiff had placed the sign "sometime probably at lunch in order not to interrupt argument with the attorneys coming in and out." At defense counsel's request, the court agreed to take the sign down and unlock the courtroom doors, and the closing arguments continued.

The next day, the court stated for the record a further reason supporting the temporary closure of the courtroom to additional spectators, namely, that defendant's trial posed unusual security risks. According to the court, defendant was a "kickboxer" and had been classified both as a violent offender and an escape risk. Additionally, according to the court, defendant's alleged offenses involved drug transactions, and defendant had indicated to the bailiff that some persons in the courtroom might attempt to kill him. Because According to the court, the sign was posted around 1:35 p.m., and "during the entire afternoon session there were in fact people in the audience in the courtroom, and ... people were not prevented from coming in and being spectators."

[841 P.2d 956] of the numbers of persons entering and exiting the courtroom during the morning session, the bailiff had asked the court for permission to close the doors and direct persons to room 221, where they could be more readily screened before admittance to the courtroom. Due to a shortage of personnel, only a single bailiff was available to secure the courtroom.

Defendant renewed his objection by moving for a new trial, supported by a declaration from an acquaintance alleging: (1) he and another person approached the courtroom around 1:45 p.m. on the day in question, with the intent to view defendant's trial and provide "support" for him; (2) they observed a sign on the courtroom door that prohibited entry; and (3) they consequently departed without observing the proceedings. The court, after reiterating its reasons for posting the sign, denied the new trial motion.


As previously indicated, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment of conviction, concluding that defendant was denied his state and federal constitutional rights to a public trial. (Because a defendant's state constitutional public trial right appears to be coextensive with the federal guarantee [see People v. Pompa-Ortiz (1980) 27 Cal.3d 519, 525-526, 165 Cal.Rptr. 851, 612 P.2d 941], further general references to the "public trial right" or "public trial guarantee" are intended to include both the state and federal constitutional provisions.)

The Court of Appeal reasoned that the public trial right applies to the closing argument stage of trial, that the temporary closure in this case infringed on that right, and that the infringement required reversal of defendant's conviction. The court relied on the principle that the accused is not required to prove prejudice in order to obtain relief for a denial of his public trial guarantee (see Waller v. Georgia (1984) 467 U.S. 39, 49-50, 104 S.Ct. 2210, 2217, 81 L.Ed.2d 31, and that, accordingly, denial thereof is deemed per se reversible error (see Arizona v. Fulminante (1991) 499 U.S. 279, ----, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 1256, 113 L.Ed.2d 302, 321 (opn. of White, J.) [dictum]; id. at p. ----, 111 S.Ct. at p. 1264, 113 L.Ed.2d at p. 331 (opn. of Rehnquist, C.J.) [dictum] ); People v. Pompa-Ortiz, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 527, 165 Cal.Rptr. 851, 612 P.2d 941). As will appear, we agree with the Court of Appeal that the right to public trial encompasses the closing argument phase of the trial. But we also conclude that the closure of the courtroom doors to additional spectators during part of the prosecutor's arguments, being both temporary in duration and motivated by legitimate concerns to maintain security and prevent continuous interruptions of closing arguments, and not involving the exclusion of preexisting spectators, did not constitute a denial of defendant's public trial right.

We note preliminarily that we have no occasion in this case to consider any special obligations trial courts may owe to the press or news media arising under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although various media organizations have joined to raise such issues in an amici curiae brief, nothing in the record suggests that any representative of the press was barred from attending defendant's trial or was otherwise affected by the court's order temporarily closing the courtroom to additional spectators.

1. Public trial right applies to closing arguments

Every person charged with a criminal offense has a constitutional right to a public trial, that is, a trial which is open to the general public at all times. (See U.S. Const., amends. VI, XIV; Cal.Const., art. I, § 15; see also Pen.Code, § 686, subd. 1.) We discuss the nature and scope of the right, and limitations thereon, in greater detail below. But initially it seems clear the public trial right extends to the closing argument phase of a criminal case. At least two California cases seem to have so assumed in dictum. (See People v. Teitelbaum (1958) 163 Cal.App.2d 184, 206-207, 329 P.2d 157; People v. Buck (1941) 46 Cal.App.2d 558, 562, 116 P.2d 160; see also Herring v. New York (1975) 422 U.S. 853, 858, 95 S.Ct. 2550, 2553, 45 L.Ed.2d 593 [closing argument is "a basic element of the adversary factfinding process in a criminal trial"]; State v. Pullen (Me.1970) 266 A.2d 222, 228 [public trial guarantee includes all phases of trial, including closing arguments]; State v. Lawrence (Iowa 1969) 167 N.W.2d 912, 915 [same]; see generally Annot., Exclusion of Public from State Criminal Trial in Order to Prevent Disturbance by Spectators or Defendant (1987) 55 A.L.R.4th 1170; Annot., Exclusion of Public During Criminal Trial (1956) 48 A.L.R.2d 1436.)

In People v. Buck, supra, 46 Cal.App.2d at p. 562, 116 P.2d 160, the appellate court reviewed a trial court order closing the courtroom...

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