WASHINGTON – The judge who will preside over the trial of former president Donald Trump for his handling of classified papers made two critical errors during a trial in June. One of these mistakes violated the constitutional rights of the defendant, and could have invalidated proceedings, according legal experts and court transcripts.
A transcript of the trial obtained by Reuters shows that U.S. district judge AileenCannon in Florida closed jury selection to the defendant’s family and general public for the trial of a man from Alabama who was accused by federal prosecutors of operating a website containing images of child sex exploitation. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant’s right for a public trial.
Cannon, 42-year-old Cannon is a former federal prosecutor who was appointed to the bench by Trump in 2020, late in his administration. He also failed to swear the prospective jury pool, an obligatory process in which those who could serve on the panel promise to tell the truth in the selection process. Cannon was forced to restart jury selection after this error before the trial abruptly ended with William Spearman, the defendant, pleading guilty in an agreement with prosecutors.
Stephen Smith, professor at Santa Clara School of Law (California), said that Cannon’s choice to close the courtroom was “a fundamental constitutional mistake”. She ignored the right to a public trial. “It’s like she didn’t even know that it existed.”
Cannon cited the small size of her courtroom in the federal courthouse at Fort Pierce, Florida, as the reason for closing jury selection.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that closing a courtroom from the public is a “structural mistake” — one so serious it can invalidate an entire criminal trial, because it affects the core of the process. The First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly and press are also affected by a public trial.
Cannon’s choice raises questions as to how she will deal with the intense public attention at Trump’s Trial which is set to begin in May 2024.
A former president’s unprecedented prosecution as he runs to return to the White House is sure to attract a lot of public attention. Cannon will also be handling a case that involves classified evidence, and the complex rules associated with it.
Five former federal judges, both Democratic and Republican appointed, said that Cannon’s mistakes in court also show her lack of judicial experience.
“A lack experience can be very difficult in a large case, especially with all the media attention, and when everything you do is being observed, commented on, and second-guessed,” Jeremy Fogel said, a former Federal Judge who heads the Berkeley Judicial Institute, in California.
Fogel stated that Cannon committed “two pretty significant mistakes” in selecting the jury for the June trial.
Fogel said, “It’s a bigger issue because of the judge.”
Mark Bennett, former Chief U.S. District judge of the Northern District of Iowa said: “She should have thought ahead of time about how to accommodate a few family members in a very tiny courtroom. It was the right thing for her to do and avoid the possibility of a reversible mistake.
Cannon declined to comment on a request. Scott Berry, the federal public defender who represents Spearman, and a spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Cannon has so far presided over four criminal cases that have resulted in jury decisions. Cannon also participated in four criminal trials that ended with jury verdicts as a federal prosecutor between 2013 and 2020, according a questionnaire filled out by her before she was confirmed to be a judge.
Cannon received a rebuke by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Cannon’s 2022 order appointing a party to review the documents seized by FBI at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida as part of the classified records probe.
“We cannot create a rule allowing any subject of a warrant to stop government investigations after execution.” We cannot write a rule allowing only former presidents the right to do this,” wrote the 11th Circuit panel, made up of three Republican-appointed judges. The panel reversed Cannon’s decision and ordered the dismissal of the lawsuit that Trump filed to hide documents from federal investigators.
Trump’s trial, which will be held on 40 criminal charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy, as well as retaining classified documents, is expected to take place in the near future. Trump will face separate trials for two other federal and state criminal accusations.
Paul Grimm is a former federal court judge from Maryland, who leads the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School, in North Carolina. He said that it’s not uncommon for a newly appointed judge to be assigned a case with high profile, since cases are randomly assigned.
Grimm explained: “You understand the situation on the basis of the drawing.” You can ask for assistance, but if that’s not what you want to do, no one will force you to seek help.
Your objection has been overruled
Cannon started jury selection in the Spearman trial on June 12. Spearman was accused of conspiring to distribute and advertise images of child abuse, and of engaging in an enterprise of child exploitation.
Cannon did not swear in the jury that day, according to the transcript. The transcript also showed that Cannon refused to open the courtroom for the public, despite requests by both the prosecutors and the defense attorneys.
Former federal judges who were interviewed by Reuters stated that their courtroom assistants would sometimes remind them about procedural steps such as swearing in potential jurors because they might be focused on running a trial.
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Thank you. Cannon responded, “Your objection is overruled,” according to the transcript.
Greg Schiller was the federal prosecutor who later pressured Cannon to allow Spearman’s mom in. Schiller cited a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that stated that judges should weigh alternatives to shutting a courtroom, even during jury selection.
Cannon refused to comply with Berry’s request when he pointed out two chairs that were open in the room. He said the chairs belonged to law enforcement.
“Mr. Spearman’s mom is welcome to join us after the jury selection process is completed and/or if there is enough space in the courtroom,” Cannon stated, according to a transcript.
Cannon offered later to let Spearman’s relatives in after the judge realized that she had also failed to swear in her jury pool. She told the judge that there would be space in the courtroom once certain jurors, who both sides agreed should be dismissed in the case, had left.
The jury selection process was never restarted because Spearman, the prosecutors and Spearman entered into a “conditional plea agreement”, an unusual arrangement that preserves the right of a defendant to appeal certain decisions made by the trial judge. In most plea agreements, defendants give up the majority of their appeal rights.
Spearman’s decision to accept a plea bargain, before he is sentenced on August 31 by Cannon, avoided the issue of the court closing. Legal experts, however, said that it raises concerns about Cannon’s handling of public access to Trump’s trial.
Smith, Santa Clara’s Smith, said that she would have to make accommodations.