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Trial Held in Texas Prison Courtroom Not Open to the Public

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that a plea hearing in a criminal case held in a prison chapel was not open to the public, and thus violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights.

Conrad Lilly, a Texas state prisoner, was charged with two counts of assault on a public servant. The trial court arraigned him in the chapel at the maximum-security French Robertson Unit, which serves as a branch courthouse for Jones County. Lilly filed a pretrial motion to transfer the trial proceedings to the courthouse in the county seat of Anson. His motion was denied.

Lilly pleaded guilty in exchange for a six-year sentence, then appealed the courthouse venue issue. The Court of Appeals upheld his conviction after finding he had failed to prove that anyone who wanted to attend the trial had been turned away from the prison. See: Lilly v. State, 337 S.W.3d 373 (Tex. App. 2011). Lilly filed a petition for discretionary review, which was granted.

The Court of Criminal Appeals found that a plea bargain hearing is a trial "within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment." It noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had held trials must be open to the public with only very limited exceptions, none of which were applicable. The Court of Criminal Appeals stated that "[w]hen determining whether a defendant has proved that his trial was closed to the public, the focus is not on whether the defendant can show that someone was actually excluded. Rather, a reviewing court must look to the totality of the evidence and determine whether the trial court fulfilled its obligation 'to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials.'

"While the admittance policies at the [French Robertson] Unit were not tailored specifically to Appellant or any other inmate, they were highly restrictive," the Court continued. "And, even though the individual admittance policies in this case would not, standing alone, necessarily amount to a per se closure, the cumulative effect of the Unit's policies undermines our confidence that every reasonable measure was taken to accommodate public attendance at Appellant's trial."

Further, the trial court, which initiated the transfer of Lilly's plea hearing to the prison chapel courtroom, made no findings of fact to support its decision. Therefore, the selection of the prison courtroom was improper and violated Lilly's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals did not rule on Lilly's second claim which alleged that holding a trial in a prison chapel violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. See: Lilly v. State, 365 S.W.3d 321 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012).

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Related legal case

Lilly v. State