Weaver v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts (U.S. Supreme Court)

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial” and “have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” In conjunction with the Yale Supreme Court Clinic, we represent a client who was tried and convicted in a closed courtroom, in blatant violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Our client’s defense counsel failed to object to this unconstitutional closure—not based on a strategic calculation but because he was simply ignorant of the applicable law. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that our client’s right to a public trial had been violated and agreed further that defense counsel’s failure to object to the closure was ineffective assistance of counsel. It nevertheless denied relief on the basis that our client could not prove that he suffered “actual prejudice” as a result of the complete exclusion of the public from the courtroom.

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to consider whether a defendant who demonstrates that his lawyer’s deficient performance resulted in structural error—that is, error that affects the fundamental fairness of trial in a way that defies analysis—must show actual prejudice to obtain a new trial.