Court: Locked courtroom is still a public trial

If a judge locks the courtroom doors, have you lost your right to a public trial in the state of Minnesota?

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court said “no,” ruling in the case of Jerrell Brown’s 2010 trial , who was convicted of aiding and abetting first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang. Brown was a member of the Shotgun Crips gang.

After closing arguments in the trial, the judge in the case had the courtroom door locked during jury instructions, but did not order anyone inside to leave. Brown was convicted on all four counts of murder.

“Not all courtroom restrictions implicate a defendant’s right to a public trial,” Justice Alan Page wrote in today’s opinion. He said the trial remained open “to the public and the press” and neither the defendant nor his family were denied the opportunity to witness the proceedings.

But Justice Page cautioned judges in the state to be careful when locking courtrooms, saying “the act of locking courtroom doors during jury instructions creates the appearance that Minnesota’s courtrooms are closed or inaccessible to the public… the better practice is for the trial court to expressly state on the record why the court is locking the courtroom doors.”

Justice Helen Meyer dissented, however, criticizing the judge for not explaining why the courtroom was closed. “The act of locking the doors such that the public may not enter or exit for the duration of jury instructions certainly contravenes the ‘presumption of openness’ at the heart of the public trial guarantee,” she wrote.

Here’s the full opinion and dissent.

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