WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court turned down yesterday a plea by Maryland officials to give states more flexibility to close courtrooms during some parts of criminal trials.
The justices' brief order will mean that Ronald Gene Watters will get a new trial on charges of murdering a Salisbury State University student nearly five years ago. The courtroom was closed while Watters' jury was chosen.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled last October that new trials must be granted in any criminal case when the courtroom was closed during a "significant" part of the trial, because that violates the accused individual's right to a public trial.
Watters was convicted in fall 1989 of first-degree murder for the strangling of Lisa Renee Taylor, a 19-year-old college student. She disappeared in June 1988 on her way home from a part-time job at a drugstore in Salisbury. Her body was found about four months later in a wooded area near the campus.
At the time, police had no leads in the case. But Watters, being held then in Wicomico County jail on other charges, implicated himself in the Taylor case, leading to his prosecution. Besides being convicted of murder, Watters also was found guilty of assault with intent to murder and assault and battery. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
On the opening day of Watters' trial, a large crowd had assembled at the courthouse. Deputy Sheriff T. A. Phillips decided, apparently on his own, to keep spectators and the press out of the courtroom during the first morning's jury selection process.
During the lunch recess, defense lawyers learned that the courtroom had been closed and demanded a mistrial. The mistrial plea was rejected, the trial went on, and Watters was found guilty.
His first challenge in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals was rejected, but he won his later plea to the Court of Appeals.
It makes no difference, the Court of Appeals said, whether the trial judge was aware that the public had been kept out of the courtroom.
The Supreme Court, as usual, gave no reason for declining to hear the case. Thus, the case goes back to Wicomico County for a new trial.