State v. Paumier: Court Upholds the Right to Public Trial & Self-Representation

Good case.  WA Court of Appeals reversed Rene Pedro Paumier’s convictions because the trial court improperly (1) excluded public citizens from a portion of his trial, and (2) denied his right to represent himself.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=363461MAJ

Mr. Paumier was charged with Burglary and Theft.  Jury selection involved questioning jurors in chambers and recording their responses.  The public was not allowed to watch jury selection.  The trial court stated at the outset that potential jurors who preferred to answer questions privately to avoid possible embarrassment would be taken into the judge’s chambers.  Several jurors indicated during the course of voir dire that they preferred to answer certain questions in chambers.  The judge and the parties questioned five jurors in chambers, recording the jurors’ responses. Jury selection was completed that same day.

The following day, the trial court permitted the State to amend the information.  Paumier then pleaded not guilty and asked to represent himself, stating:

I just don’t feel like a — I feel like there’s [sic] things about the trial getting this far
that it shouldn’t have.  And I feel that my attorney should have spoke [sic] up for
me instead of getting pissed off at me in court.  And I just don’t feel like he’s
doing his job like he should.  I don’t feel it should have gotten this far, and I’d just
rather present my, you know, case myself.

His request was denied because the lower court decided that it came too late.

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned, however, that Paumier’s right to a public trial was violated when the court allowed the jurors to be questioned privately in chambers.  The guaranty of open criminal proceedings extends to voir dire.  Additionally, the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s Presley v. Georgia makes it clear that court room closures should be rare and the court must consider alternatives prior to closing the court room.

The trial court also abused its discretion when it denied the defendant his request to represent himself at trial.  Here, there was no request for continuance, and the defendant’s request was clear.  There was no evidence that trial would have been delayed, or that granting his request would have impaired the administration of justice.

 My opinion?  Good decision.  Kudos to the defendant for stating, on the record, his preference to represent himself after the judge and attorneys conducted voir dire in chambers, and away from the public eye.  Mr. Paumier correctly followed his instincts.  I hope Mason County learns a lesson.