Is a criminal trial “public” (as the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution requires) if the judge questions prospective jurors out of audience earshot?
Jonathan Blades was headed for trial in D.C. Superior Court in January 2015 on multiple felony charges stemming from a late-night fight and shooting in February 2014 at 20th and L Streets, N.W., His fate would be in the hands of a jury of D.C. residents, summoned at random and seated after individuals talked at the bench with Associate Judge Michael Ryan about their answers to his questions about disqualifying factors.
Judge Ryan masked these exchanges using a “husher” (or white noise device) so only he, Blades, the attorneys and the court reporter could understand. Those in the courtroom audience could see but not hear the proceedings.
Attorneys for Blades objected at the time, but Judge Ryan went ahead. He made no specific findings of special facts requiring confidentiality (as some earlier cases said were required), only a general justification, citing his concern about “the candor of prospective jurors,” which he said was “[b]ased on 20 years of being a trial lawyer and more than 10 years of being a [j]udge.” The judge explained that it was his “experience and belief that [potential jurors] are less forthcoming in response especially to sensitive questions when they don’t have, at least, the cover of the husher and being up at the bench.”