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High Court hears arguments in Sabattus man's request for a new murder trial

By Christopher Williams - Sun Journal

Lewison - Auburn: Wednesday, September 10, 2014 at 2:40 pm

The state's highest court heard arguments Wednesday that the public was barred from the courtroom during a Sabattus man's 2007 murder trial, denying him his constitutional rights.

The Androscoggin County Superior Court trial judge, Justice Joyce Wheeler allowed Daniel Roberts, 45, to send the case back to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for a second look on appeal after Wheeler ruled against Roberts in a post­conviction review of constitutional issues that he believed should have earned him a new trial.

Boston attorney Rosemary Curran Scapicchio, who represented Roberts on Wednesday, argued that the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a proper trial was violated because some members of the public were kept out of the courtroom during testimonial portions of the trial, as well as during the reading of the verdict.

She also argued that Roberts should have been allowed to decide whether to attend the voir dire portion of jury selection, which is when jurors are asked questions about potential bias or conflict.

Roberts shot to death Melissa Mendoza, 29, of California in his garage on Aug. 15, 2005. The couple had been embroiled in a custody dispute over their daughter, Savanna, 2 years old at the time of the shooting. Roberts claimed that the shooting was self­ defense. Prosecutors said he had lain in wait for Mendoza.

He was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Scapicchio argued there were less restrictive means available to Wheeler to have accomplished her goal of restricting courtroom traffic that she found to be disruptive to the jury. Scapicchio said Wheeler only allowed the public to enter the courtroom during breaks in witness testimony.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley asked: "Why isn't that, in fact, the most
reasonable, least disruptive alternative to (Roberts') right to have an open trial?

Scapicchio said Wheeler had other less restrictive means to accomplish the same thing. A court officer stationed at the back of the Auburn courtroom could have instructed the public that: "Once you walk in here, you take your seat and that's it. There's no talking. There's no gabbing. There's no discussion," she said.

Justice Donald Alexander noted a federal court case that upheld a trial judge's decision to bar certain members of the public from the courtroom.

Excluding people from the courtroom who divert the jury's attention from witnesses who are testifying "is fully appropriate," he said. The courtroom was open to the public at the time witnesses began to testify, he said. Justice Joseph Jabar said Scapicchio appeared to be more concerned about the right of a member of the public to view the trial than she was about the rights of her client.

"How is your client prejudiced because a certain person has to wait five minutes before they enter the courtroom?" he said. A five ­minute wait wouldn't be significant, but missing the entire testimony of a certain witness would be, she said.

Saufley said it wasn't only Roberts' supporters who had been barred from the courtroom by the trial judge. "So, the issue is not who is excluded, but that there are members of the public who are excluded," Saufley said. She asked whether Roberts objected to the trial judge's edict. "No," Scapicchio said. "Wasn't it in fact to his benefit to have the jury paying attention to the witnesses?" Saufley asked.

Scapicchio said there was a benefit, but the jury also could have paid
attention to the witnesses had Wheeler employed a less restrictive method of maintaining order in the courtroom.

Scapicchio argued that Roberts' trial attorney, Leonard Sharon, should have consulted with his client and secured his permission before opting to quiz individual members of the jury pool in the trial judge's chambers during jury selection.

Sharon should have told Roberts: "You have an absolute right to a public trial. Bringing this behind closed doors prevents you from having this portion of the trial in public. You have an absolute right, you need to understand, that it can be waived and that I'm recommending that it be waived in this case," Scapicchio said.

Saufley suggested Roberts' objection to the voir dire held in chambers may be an effort to revisit a strategy that had failed to help him win at trial. Scappachio said it wasn't Roberts' strategy because he wasn't offered another opinion.

Saufley said that, from Sharon's perspective, had Roberts insisted that the voir dire happen in open court, "his ability to select jurors who could be fair to his case, given some of the highly emotional and possibly distracting evidence that was going to come in at trial, would have been affected."

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said he agreed with Wheeler's conclusion that there was no violation of the right to a public trial in the Roberts murder case. There were disruptions by spectators during the trial, which is why the trial judge instituted her policy of only allowing people to enter during breaks, he said. "There's nothing wrong with balancing that right of the jury to be able to pay attention," Macomber said. He said Sharon asked for the individual voir dire in chambers and that Roberts was present for it. No member of the press of public objected to being excluded from that portion of the voir dire, Macomber said.

 

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