Closing Courtroom to Family is ‘Trivial’

Closing a courtroom temporarily to the defendant’s family and the public during jury selection was a “trivial” exclusion and does not violate the defendant’s fair trial rights, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday.

Sundeep Dharni was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to commit arson and mail fraud stemming from his deal with a buddy to burn down his not-yet-open pizzeria in Sacramento.

He was accused of paying Richard Duran $1,500 to burn down the restaurant.  But Duran took computer equipment, a smoothie-maker and surveillance system before he torched the restaurant, and police spotted in his van during a routine traffic stop.

Dharni argued that excluding his family and the public to make space for jurors during voir dire denied him a fair trial and his lawyer’s failure to object amounted to ineffective assistance.

“The request that spectators, including family members, leave the courtroom temporarily was at most a trivial closure that did not implicate the Sixth Amendment values behind the right to a public trial,” the trial court held and the 9th Circuit agreed.

The purpose of public trials is to ensure a fair trial, remind the prosecutor and judge of their responsibility to the defendant, encourage witnesses to come forward and discourage perjury, according to the court.

None of these values were hurt by temporarily excluding spectators to accommodate potential jurors waiting to be questioned during jury selection.

The panel upheld Dharni’s conviction and sentence.

Case:  U.S. v. Dharni, No. 11-16438


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