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Court’s Handling of Juror Selection Did Not Violate Assault Defendant’s Rights, Washington Supreme Court Rules

On Behalf of | Sep 23, 2016 | Assault

The U.S. and Washington constitutions give criminal defendants certain clear rights. In Washington, one right accused people have is the right to a public trial. There are several procedural obligations that the courts must follow in order to ensure that an accused person’s trial meets this requirement. One requirement that does not exist is that prosecuting and defense attorneys cannot use sidebar to submit peremptory juror exclusion choices. The Washington Supreme Court, in a recent decision explaining the extent of the public trial right as it relates to submitting peremptory challenges, concluded that attorneys could make these challenges at sidebar as long as certain other processes are followed.

The accused person in the case was Dustin Marks, who faced trial in Pierce County in the spring of 2013. In that trial, the prosecution accused him of having committed first-degree assault, unlawful firearm possession, second-degree vehicle prowling, and reckless endangerment.

As with any criminal trial, one of the first things that the court did was select a jury. In selecting a jury in a criminal trial, each of the prosecution and defense gets a certain number of what’s called “peremptory challenges.” These allow the challenging side to exclude a potential juror without having to state a reason for striking that person. In Marks’ case, the judge handled these challenges by meeting with the attorneys at sidebar in open court. Each side wrote down its challenges on a piece of paper that was filed as part of the official record of the case. The judge then announced the individuals who had been selected as jurors. Ultimately, the jury convicted Marks on all charges.

Marks appealed several aspects of his trial. One part of his appeal was an argument that the trial judge’s method for handling the peremptory challenges violated his constitutional right to a public trial. To meet the legal obligations of trying accused persons in public, the law required each side to announce its peremptory challenges on the record in open court, he argued. The Court of Appeals ruled against him, concluding that the exercise of peremptory challenges did “not implicate Marks’ public trial right,” so the trial court’s method could not possibly violate the man’s constitutional public trial rights, regardless of how the trial judge handled them.

Marks took his case to the Washington Supreme Court but still lost. The high court concluded that Marks was correct that, contrary to what the Court of Appeals decided, an accused person’s right to a public trial does include the process of exercising peremptory challenges. That did not help Marks in his effort to overturn his conviction, though, since the high court also ruled that the way the trial judge handled these challenges in Marks’ case did not violate this right. Last year, the high court ruled that, as long as the challenges are made in open court, and the trial court creates a public record of the jurors eliminated through this process, the right to a public trial is satisfied, even if prosecuting and defense counsel used sidebar to submit the names of the struck individuals. In Marks’ case, the judge did not close the courtroom at any point during the peremptory challenge process. The written list of challenged jurors was incorporated into the official record of the case. This fulfilled the necessary requirements in terms of protecting Marks’ public trial right.

This ruling upholding the conviction in this Tacoma-area trial mirrored a decision from late last year made by the Court of Appeals. In that case, the man unsuccessfully challenged his domestic assault conviction, based upon juror selection. Since the peremptory challenges were made in open court, and the court maintained a written list of excluded jurors that was part of the record, the process in that trial also met the law’s requirements for a public trial.

Whenever you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, it is important to retain experienced counsel to help you protect your rights. The Pierce County/Tacoma assault attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have many years of experience helping the accused and have the resources you need for your case. Call us today at 253-363-8662 to schedule your initial consultation. The first consultation is free.