The Florida Supreme Court recently held that some criminal trials may be partially closed to the public, but the justices were split on their reasoning for this decision. Press and general public access to criminal proceedings help to ensure that defendants are granted fair trials. However, the court has held that in certain portions of trials involving sex crimes that judges can order a courtroom’s doors closed to outsiders.
In the case before the court, a man charged with lewd and lascivious acts against a minor had a portion of his trial closed to the public when the alleged victim of his acts was testifying. The defendant objected to the partial closure, but the court upheld a Florida law which allows alleged sex crime victims to request closure during his or her personal testimony.
Four justices insisted that Florida’s law meets United States Supreme Court criteria for public exclusion in every sex crimes case, especially because select family members, media, court reporters and victim advocates may remain present under state law.
However, other justices questioned whether or not the state law truly adheres to the Supreme Court’s criteria unless inquiries are made into reasonable alternatives in each case. Given how critical transparency is to the just functioning of the criminal legal system, this concern is not unfounded. The Supreme Court requires that any closure must not be broader than is absolutely necessary to protect a victims’ overriding interest which would be likely prejudiced if the testimony was subject to an open hearing.
It seems for now that Florida sex crime defendants will likely be subject to closure during victim testimony. This ruling makes it all the more critical that defendants are given a transparent and fair process at every other point during their trials.