WA Supreme Court: Jailhouse Trial for Murder Uncouth (mostly)
I apologize for the delay in getting this latest set of supreme court opinions out. I have been in trial in Skagit County. For those who don't know, Skagit lies just a tad bit north of the Prof's chosen abode in Seattle. I actually head back up there tuesday for another trial. Nothing like living life out of a suitcase!
Jaime was tried for second degree murder. The court held, with Justice Stephens writing for the majority, that holding said trial in the jail courthouse violated his due process rights by "eroding the presumption of innocence." Can't say I disagree just based on the smell test, but here's what the court had to say about it:
Consistent with this analysis, the question here is whether the average juror would take for granted his or her presence in a jail, i.e., whether jurors are so inured to the experience of being in a jail building that it would have no effect on their perspective as jurors. The answer is self-evident. "'[R]eason, principle, and common human experience'" tell us that the average juror does not take for granted a visit to a jail. Id. at 569 (quoting Estelle, 425 U.S. at 504). The average juror does not frequent the jailhouse for the very reason that a jailhouse is not meant to be a public space. Unlike a courthouse, in which the public is welcome to -- and in some instances required to -- conduct all manner of business, a jail serves a specific purpose not generally applicable to the public at large.
The difference between jailhouses and courthouses is evident even in their architectural contrast. Courthouses are often monuments of public life, adorned with architectural flourishes and historical exhibits that make them inviting to members of the public. Many of our county courthouses are on historical registries and are visited each year by school children, civic groups, and tourists. A jail, on the other hand, is singularly utilitarian. Its purpose is to isolate from the public a segment of the population whose actions have been judged grievous enough to warrant confinement. Jail buildings are typically austere in character, and entrance is subject to heightened security. Indeed, the Yakima County jail in which Jaime's trial was held was described by the judge in an unrelated trial as "a monolithic concrete building." Br. of Appellant at 111, State v. Sanchez, No. 26816-1-III (Wash. Ct. App. Jan. 23, 2009) (oral argument stayed pending decision in this case).
Given the character of a jail, a juror would not take a visit to a jailhouse for granted, nor would he or she be inured to the experience. See Holbrook, 475 U.S. at 569. A juror's experience with jail is very likely limited to what our societal discourse tells us of jails: they are high-security places that house individuals who need to be in custody. That the average juror would draw a corresponding inference from that experience is reasonable to surmise.
Of course, some jurors' experience with a jail may be more personal but no less negative. What if, for example, one of Jaime's jurors was the victim of domestic violence whose abuser was housed in the jail? Her visit to the jail would not strike her as unremarkable or routine. It takes no great logical leap to conclude that such a juror's heightened awareness of her surroundings could contribute negatively to her view of the defendant.
In short, under the analysis of Holbrook, holding a trial in a jail courtroom is inherently prejudicial for two reasons. First, the setting is not in a courthouse, a public building whose purpose is to provide a neutral place to conduct the business of the law. Second, the setting that replaces the courthouse has a purpose and function that is decidedly not neutral, routine, or commonplace. Holding a criminal trial in a jailhouse building involves such a probability of prejudice that we must conclude it is "'inherently lacking in due process.'" Holbrook, 475 U.S. at 570 (quoting Estes, 381 U.S. 542-43).
That said, the court didn't say that you could never have a jailhouse trial, but there had better be a damned good reason for doing so (articulated safety risks, etc.).
Of particular note, is the court's calling out of a false statement to the jury by the trial court. I wholeheartedly believe, as does the court, that trust in the jury, and the juries trust in the system are essential for the proper administration of justice. The trial court here misrepresented to the jury why the trial was being held at the jailhouse. While I do not think it was the slightest ill intent by the trial, and do not fault the trial court for wanting to find an explanation that may satisfy the jury, the explanation must be truthful.
Justices Fairhurst, J. Johnson, and Madsen would hold that the prejudice of walking through a jail on the way to a courtroom is less prejudicial than shackles, and that the trial implicated no due process rights. Additionally, Justice J. Johnson would hold that the jury could have followed a curative instruction. I would point out that if this were the case, there would potentially be no due process violations, even for shackles applied inappropriately, as anything could be simply explained away. Some bells cannot be unrung, no matter how well you instruct the jury.