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Cameron v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

July 12, 2017

Vanessa CAMERON, Appellant
v.
The STATE of Texas, Appellee

         From the 379th Judicial District Court, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 2010CR4286C Honorable Ron Rangel, Judge Presiding

          Karen Angelini, Justice Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice Irene Rios, Justice

          OPINION

          Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice

         This case is before us on remand from the Court of Criminal Appeals. Vanessa Cameron was convicted of the murder for hire of her child's father and sentenced to seventy years in prison. On appeal, Cameron raised several issues, including that she was deprived of her constitutional right to a public trial during voir dire. A majority of this court agreed, and we reversed her conviction and remanded for a new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals initially affirmed, but issued a new opinion on rehearing reversing and remanding. In its opinion on rehearing, the Court held that a defendant bears an initial burden of proof on appeal to show that the courtroom was "in fact closed" to the public before an appellate court may consider whether the closure was justified. The Court therefore reversed and remanded the case for our reconsideration of the public trial issue under the sequential two-step test. See Cameron v. State, 490 S.W.3d 57, 70 (Tex. Crim. App.) (op. on reh'g), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 95 (2016).

         Background

         The only facts relevant to this appeal are those surrounding the alleged closing of the courtroom to the exclusion of Cameron's family and friends, as well as the public, during the voir dire phase of trial. In a nutshell, Cameron's family and friends were instructed by the bailiffs to leave the courtroom prior to the start of voir dire so the large venire panel could be seated. Cameron's family and friends understood that they were not allowed to re-enter the courtroom during the voir dire proceedings. Defense counsel made the trial court aware they had been excluded from the courtroom and objected to a violation of Cameron's right to a public trial. A lengthy discussion occurred both on and off the record, with the trial court repeatedly stating the courtroom was not "closed" but there was no room for the family or public inside the courtroom to observe voir dire. The relevant statements made by the trial court and counsel on the record are discussed in detail in the Court of Criminal Appeals' opinion as well as the prior majority and dissenting opinions by this court. See id. at 65-67; see also Cameron v. State, 415 S.W.3d 404, 406-408 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2013), rev'd, 490 S.W.3d 70 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016); see also id. at 415-21 (Angelini, J., dissenting).

         After Cameron was tried and convicted, she filed a motion for new trial alleging her right to a public trial was violated during voir dire. She attached twelve affidavits from her family and friends stating the bailiffs instructed them to leave the courtroom before the jury panel entered and they did not witness any of the voir dire proceedings. The affidavit by Cameron's mother, a San Antonio police officer, also states that she requested to come in and sit on the floor during voir dire, but the bailiff denied her request and stated she would be a security risk. The State filed a response to the motion for new trial and attached affidavits from two bailiffs stating they did not close the courtroom to the public during voir dire. One of the bailiffs confirms in his affidavit that he denied the request by Cameron's mother to sit on the floor based on security concerns. The trial court did not hold a hearing on the motion for new trial. It signed an order acknowledging presentment of the motion for new trial and stating the motion would be determined based solely upon the affidavits. Although the court did not enter a written order denying the motion, it adopted the State's proposed findings of fact in opposition to the motion. Specifically, the trial court made the following sixteen findings of fact:

1. The Court never ruled that observers were excluded from the voir dire or any other part of the trial in this case.
2. The defense attorney in this case was more inclined to obtain a ruling from the court and seemed less inclined to accept any solutions offered by the Court.
3. Prior to the venire panel entering the courtroom, the defense attorney never requested the Court to allow him to go outside and bring the defendant's family and friends into the courtroom; nor did he ask for a break to call family and friends to come into the courtroom. The Court made it clear that the public was not excluded from the courtroom.
4. The Court offered to open up the doors in the back of the court and let the public observe from the hall area.
5. The Court attempted to find places for the public to observe from.
6. Suggestions were offered to the attorney for the defense regarding placement of observers, both on and off the record.
7. Both on and off the record, suggestions were requested from the defense attorney as to where he would like the observers to be placed in the courtroom.
8. Besides the time when the Court's bailiffs cleared the courtroom to bring the venirepanel [sic] in and get the panel seated, on two other occasions (one involving a venireman who had a medical episode and another involving a security alarm) the courtroom had to be cleared again.
9. No Court personnel ordered observers to leave the courthouse.
10. The Court did not order the bailiffs or anyone else to tell spectators to leave the courtroom.
11. The Court did not order the bailiffs or anyone else to tell spectators to leave the courthouse.
12. The bailiff's [sic] did not tell spectators that they should leave the courthouse.
13. The bailiff's [sic] did not tell spectators that they would not be allowed to watch the proceedings.
14. If observers had entered after the jury panel was seated, they would have been allowed back in the courtroom by the Court during the proceedings in this case.
15. Prior to voir dire in this case, the Court's bailiffs cleared the courtroom in order to make room to bring the venire panel into the courtroom and to get them organized and seated, but they did not tell any spectators that they were not allowed to watch the voir dire or any other part of the proceedings in this case.
16. During other trials in the past, including during voir dire proceedings, the 379th Court has had spectators in the courtroom.

         Right to a Public Trial

         The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a public trial in all criminal prosecutions. U.S. Const. amend. VI; Johnson v. United States, 520 U.S. 461, 468-69 (1997). The right extends to the jury selection phase of trial, including voir dire of prospective jurors. Presley v. Georgia, 558 U.S. 209, 212-13 (2010) (per curiam). Violation of a criminal defendant's right to a public trial is structural error that does not ...


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