Weaver v. Massachusetts

Citation198 L.Ed.2d 420,137 S.Ct. 1899
Decision Date22 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 16–240.,16–240.
Parties Kentel Myrone WEAVER, Petitioner v. MASSACHUSETTS.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Michael B. Kimberly, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Randall E. Ravitz, Boston, MA, for Respondent.

Ann O'Connell for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the respondent.

Ruth Greenberg, Law Office of Ruth Greenberg, Swampscott, MA, Eugene R. Fidell, Yale Law School, Supreme Court Clinic, New Haven, CT, Michael B. Kimberly, Charles A. Rothfeld, Andrew J. Pincus, Paul W. Hughes, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Maura Healey, Attorney General of Massachusetts, Elizabeth N. Dewar, State Solicitor, Randall E. Ravitz, Thomas E. Bocian, Assistant Attorneys General, John P. Zanini, Special Assistant Attorney General, Boston, MA, for Respondent.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

During petitioner's trial on state criminal charges, the courtroom was occupied by potential jurors and closed to the public for two days of the jury selection process. Defense counsel neither objected to the closure at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. And the case comes to the Court on the assumption that, in failing to object, defense counsel provided ineffective assistance.

In the direct review context, the underlying constitutional violation—the courtroom closure—has been treated by this Court as a structural error, i.e., an error entitling the defendant to automatic reversal without any inquiry into prejudice. The question is whether invalidation of the conviction is required here as well, or if the prejudice inquiry is altered when the structural error is raised in the context of an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.


In 2003, a 15–year–old boy was shot and killed in Boston. A witness saw a young man fleeing the scene of the crime and saw him pull out a pistol. A baseball hat fell off of his head. The police recovered the hat, which featured a distinctive airbrushed Detroit Tigers logo on either side. The hat's distinctive markings linked it to 16–year–old Kentel Weaver. He is the petitioner here. DNA obtained from the hat matched petitioner's DNA.

Two weeks after the crime, the police went to petitioner's house to question him. He admitted losing his hat around the time of the shooting but denied being involved. Petitioner's mother was not so sure. Later, she questioned petitioner herself. She asked whether he had been at the scene of the shooting, and he said he had been there. But when she asked if he was the shooter, or if he knew who the shooter was, petitioner put his head down and said nothing. Believing his response to be an admission of guilt, she insisted that petitioner go to the police station to confess. He did. Petitioner was indicted in Massachusetts state court for first-degree murder and the unlicensed possession of a handgun. He pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial.

The pool of potential jury members was large, some 60 to 100 people. The assigned courtroom could accommodate only 50 or 60 in the courtroom seating. As a result, the trial judge brought all potential jurors into the courtroom so that he could introduce the case and ask certain preliminary questions of the entire venire panel. Many of the potential jurors did not have seats and had to stand in the courtroom. After the preliminary questions, the potential jurors who had been standing were moved outside the courtroom to wait during the individual questioning of the other potential jurors. The judge acknowledged that the hallway was not "the most comfortable place to wait" and thanked the potential jurors for their patience. 2 Tr. II–103 (Apr. 10, 2006). The judge noted that there was simply not space in the courtroom for everybody.

As all of the seats in the courtroom were occupied by the venire panel, an officer of the court excluded from the courtroom any member of the public who was not a potential juror. So when petitioner's mother and her minister came to the courtroom to observe the two days of jury selection, they were turned away.

All this occurred before the Court's decision in Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 130 S.Ct. 721, 175 L.Ed.2d 675 (2010) (per curiam ). Presley made it clear that the public-trial right extends to jury selection as well as to other portions of the trial. Id., at 213–215, 130 S.Ct. 721. Before Presley, Massachusetts courts would often close courtrooms to the public during jury selection, in particular during murder trials.

In this case petitioner's mother told defense counsel about the closure at some point during jury selection. But counsel "believed that a courtroom closure for [jury selection] was constitutional." Crim. No. 2003–11293 (Super. Ct. Mass., Feb. 22, 2013), App. to Pet. for Cert. 49a. As a result, he "did not discuss the matter" with petitioner, or tell him "that his right to a public trial included the [jury voir dire ]," or object to the closure. Ibid .

During the ensuing trial, the government presented strong evidence of petitioner's guilt. Its case consisted of the incriminating details outlined above, including petitioner's confession to the police. The jury convicted petitioner on both counts. The court sentenced him to life in prison on the murder charge and to about a year in prison on the gun-possession charge.

Five years later, petitioner filed a motion for a new trial in Massachusetts state court. As relevant here, he argued that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the courtroom closure. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court recognized a violation of the right to a public trial based on the following findings: The courtroom had been closed; the closure was neither de minimis nor trivial; the closure was unjustified; and the closure was full rather than partial (meaning that all members of the public, rather than only some of them, had been excluded from the courtroom). The trial court further determined that defense counsel failed to object because of "serious incompetency, inefficiency, or inattention." Id., at 63a (quoting Massachusetts v. Chleikh, 82 Mass.App. 718, 722, 978 N.E.2d 96, 100 (2012) ). On the other hand, petitioner had not "offered any evidence or legal argument establishing prejudice." App. to Pet. for Cert. 64a. For that reason, the court held that petitioner was not entitled to relief.

Petitioner appealed the denial of the motion for a new trial to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court consolidated that appeal with petitioner's direct appeal. As noted, there had been no objection to the closure at trial; and the issue was not raised in the direct appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court then affirmed in relevant part. Although it recognized that "[a] violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial constitutes structural error," the court stated that petitioner had "failed to show that trial counsel's conduct caused prejudice warranting a new trial." 474 Mass. 787, 814, 54 N.E.3d 495, 520 (2016). On this reasoning, the court rejected petitioner's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

There is disagreement among the Federal Courts of Appeals and some state courts of last resort about whether a defendant must demonstrate prejudice in a case like this one—in which a structural error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via a claim alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Some courts have held that, when a defendant shows that his attorney unreasonably failed to object to a structural error, the defendant is entitled to a new trial without further inquiry. See, e.g., Johnson v. Sherry, 586 F.3d 439, 447 (C.A.6 2009) ; Owens v. United States, 483 F.3d 48, 64–65 (C.A.1 2007) ; Littlejohn v. United States, 73 A.3d 1034, 1043–1044 (D.C.2013) ; State v. Lamere, 327 Mont. 115, 125, 112 P.3d 1005, 1013 (2005). Other courts have held that the defendant is entitled to relief only if he or she can show prejudice. See, e.g., Purvis v. Crosby, 451 F.3d 734, 738 (C.A.11 2006) ; United States v. Gomez, 705 F.3d 68, 79–80 (C.A.2 2013) ; Reid v. State, 286 Ga. 484, 487, 690 S.E.2d 177, 180–181 (2010). This Court granted certiorari to resolve that disagreement. 580 U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 809, 196 L.Ed.2d 595 (2017). The Court does so specifically and only in the context of trial counsel's failure to object to the closure of the courtroom during jury selection.


This case requires a discussion, and the proper application, of two doctrines: structural error and ineffective assistance of counsel. The two doctrines are intertwined; for the reasons an error is deemed structural may influence the proper standard used to evaluate an ineffective-assistance claim premised on the failure to object to that error.


The concept of structural error can be discussed first. In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967), this Court "adopted the general rule that a constitutional error does not automatically require reversal of a conviction." Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 306, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 113 L.Ed.2d 302 (1991) (citing Chapman,supra ). If the government can show "beyond a reasonable doubt that the error complained of did not contribute to the verdict obtained," the Court held, then the error is deemed harmless and the defendant is not entitled to reversal. Id., at 24, 87 S.Ct. 824.

The Court recognized, however, that some errors should not be deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id., at 23, n. 8, 87 S.Ct. 824. These errors came to be known as structural errors. See Fulminante, 499 U.S., at 309–310, 111 S.Ct. 1246. The purpose of the structural error doctrine is to ensure insistence on certain basic, constitutional guarantees that should define the framework of any criminal trial. Thus, the defining feature of a structural error is that it "affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds," rather than being "simply an...

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