By closing her courtroom, judge opens door for new trial
In a criminal trial, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial. -- Sixth Amendment, U.S. Constitution
State District Judge Denise Barela Shepherd made an unusual ruling tilted toward secrecy during the murder trial of a gang member.
It backfired, and now the public will pay the cost of a retrial.
Barela partially closed her courtroom during the testimony of two confidential informants. The state Supreme Court decided this week that Barela poisoned the trial of Manuel Turrietta with that ruling.
In 2006, Turrietta was a month shy of his 18th birthday when he allegedly shot and killed a rival gang member in the parking lot of a gas station and grocery in Albuquerque.
Turrietta was a member of two gangs, Bad Boys Krew and Thugs Causing Kaos. His victim, Alberto Sandoval, was a member of a different gang, according to court records summarizing the case.
Feeling the tension and pressure of a murder trial involving gang members, Barela excluded some 30 people from the courtroom during testimony by the informants.
The state government argued that the closure was "narrowly tailored" because Turrietta's family, the victim's immediate family and members of the press remained inside.
Even so, keeping certain people out of court made no sense from a practical standpoint. Turrietta would hear the informants' testimony against him. Word of their identity would easily circulate back to others in his gang.
Few secrets exist in murder trials and none can be contained by closing courtrooms. By claiming an exception to the Constitution, the judge compromised the process.
"In this case, defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated and the closure of the courtroom during his trial was unconstitutional," Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes wrote for the Supreme Court in its 5-0 ruling.
The justices sent Turrietta's case back to the district court for a new trial. By shutting out members of the public from a murder case, Barela did not protect anyone. She simply added to the costs and security headaches of a murder trial.