WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday allowed a reversal of the conviction of a Maryland man because members of the public and press were excluded from witnessing jury selection at his murder trial.
The court, without comment, let stand a ruling of Maryland's highest court that the state must allow a new trial for Ronald Gene Watters because his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated.
Maryland officials had argued that because the public had been excluded from only the first few hours of the three-day trial, it could be considered harmless error and not require a retrial.
Watters was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1988 murder of Lisa Renee Taylor, a 19-year-old student at Salisbury State University.
Taylor's death, and Watters' arrest, generated major public interest in Salisbury, a small community on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
At the start of Watters' trial on Sept. 25, 1989, about 100 potential jurors were assembled for voir dire, the initial stage of jury selection.
A deputy sheriff, apparently without the knowledge of the trial judge or superiors, excluded everyone from the courtroom except potential jurors and witnesses in the case.
Jury selection was concluded that morning, before the court recessed for lunch.
Upon returning from lunch Watters' lawyer told the judge that members of the press and public, including Watters' mother, had been barred from the courtroom during jury selection.
The lawyer asked for a mistrial, and the court held a special hearing.
It found the deputy sheriff had acted unilaterally for what he believed were legitimate security concerns, but that Watters' could still obtain a fair and public trial.
The actual trial -- from opening arguments to conviction -- was open to the public.
But the Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed the conviction on Sixth Amendment grounds, noting that the Supreme Court has said jury selection is part of a trial,
Maryland officials argued that the two 1984 Supreme Court decisions cited by the state appeals court were misinterpreted. They had asked that such 'minimal and accidental' courtroom closings not mandate a reversed conviction.NEWLN: ------NEWLN: 92-1104 State of Maryland vs. Ronald Gene Watters