A federal court’s Covid protocols barring spectators from watching a man’s trial on a firearms charge in Oakland, Calif., violated his right to a public trial, an appeals court ruled this week in overturning his conviction.
Because of pandemic restrictions in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the courtroom was closed to the public during the trial of James David Allen II, 36, of Washington State, on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, according to an October 2020 order from Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. Instead, spectators were allowed to follow the proceedings on an audio livestream.
Lawyers for Mr. Allen objected to that decision, arguing for a video feed because “you miss all of that flavor” over audio, according to the opinion on Monday from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
In their objection, Mr. Allen’s public defenders argued that a video livestream would protect their client’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Spectators, they said, ensure that a trial is more fair and remind the prosecutors and the judge “of their responsibility to the accused.”
But Judge Gilliam disagreed, so the public was able to monitor the trial only through an audio feed. Mr. Allen, who the authorities said was arrested in July 2020 after police officers in Pinole, Calif., found him sleeping in a stolen car with a loaded AR-15 rifle, was found guilty that November on the firearms charge and was sentenced in February 2021 to six years in prison.
Lawyers for Mr. Allen appealed the conviction. On Monday, a three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, by blocking the public from “visual access” to the courtroom, the District Court had violated Mr. Allen’s right to a public trial. The appeals court vacated Mr. Allen’s conviction and sent the case back to the District Court.
In the appeals court ruling, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta wrote that the District Court did not prove that it “would imperil public health” to have a few spectators in the courtroom or watching a video feed in another room. “The District Court here failed to strike the appropriate balance,” he wrote.
Efforts to reach Judge Gilliam and a spokesman for the District Court on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Abraham Simmons, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, declined on Tuesday to comment on the appeals court ruling, but the federal prosecutor’s office can pursue a number of options, including: Asking the appeals court to reconsider its decision, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or retrying the case in District Court.
Lisa Ma, a public defender for Mr. Allen, declined on Tuesday to comment on the appeals court ruling.