Release Date:  June 22, 2017
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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In a 5-2 decision announced today, the United States Supreme Court rejected a juvenile murderer’s claim that his conviction and 15-to-life sentence should be overturned because his trial lawyer failed to object to the closure of an overcrowded courtroom during jury selection, which resulted in its closure to the public.

At issue, in the case of Weaver v. Massachusetts, was whether the Constitution requires a conviction be invalidated by a trial error, even if the error had no effect on the fairness of the trial or the defendant’s case.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined the case to argue that when a defendant claims that his trial attorney was ineffective for failure to object to a structural error at trial, the defendant must prove the error prejudiced his case in order for his conviction to be overturned. In other words, he must prove that the jury would have been less likely to find him guilty had the error not occurred.

In the Court’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy writes “To obtain relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant . . . must show deficient performance—that the attorney’s error was ‘so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.’ Second, the defendant must show that the attorney’s error ‘prejudiced the defense.’ ”

The case involves the 2003 murder of 15-year-old Germaine Rucker by then 16-year-old Kentel Myrone Weaver. Evidence introduced at trial indicates that on August 10 of that year, Rucker was alone riding his bicycle in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester carrying a backpack containing necklaces he was selling. When the boy turned down Wendover Street, a group of youths, including Weaver, attacked him, knocking him to the ground and began to beat him. After one of the youths grabbed the backpack and ran off, Weaver pulled a gun and shot Rucker twice in the head. As he ran, witnesses saw Weaver drop his gun and lose his baseball cap. He picked up the gun, but left the cap. Later, DNA testing linked Weaver to the cap. Prior to his arrest, Weaver’s mother questioned him extensively about the crime. After denying any involvement for two days, Weaver admitted to her that he was the shooter. He later admitted this to police during questioning.

Prior to the trial, during jury selection, the number of prospective jurors was so large that they filled every seat in the courtroom with many standing in the aisles. As a result, Weaver’s mother was not able to be in the courtroom during the two days it took to empanel the jury. Weaver’s defense attorney did not object to this.

At trial, Weaver claimed that his confession violated Miranda because his mother coerced him into confessing to police. The trial judge rejected that argument. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm for which he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.

Weaver appealed, claiming that his trial attorney had been ineffective for failing to adequately argue that he had been coerced to confess, and for failing to object to his mother having been kept out of the courtroom during jury selection.

After the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected both claims in a 2016 decision, Weaver appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, arguing that the exclusion of the public during jury selection was a structural error that violated his constitutional rights and invalidated his conviction.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argued that in order for the error to invalidate Weaver’s conviction, he must prove that the failure of his attorney to object to the exclusion of his mother during jury selection somehow undermined his ability to prove his innocence during the trial. The Supreme Court adopted this reasoning in its decision.

“The lower federal courts were divided on the question of whether a structural trial error automatically required a new trial or whether the defendant must show that the error had a negative impact on his case,” said Stapleton. “With this decision, the Court has prevented other guilty murderers from seeking reversal of their convictions on technical errors which occurred at trial that did not have any effect on the trial or sentencing,” she added.

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.