New trial request in Boston murder case rejected

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court last Thursday ruled against a Boston man seeking to overturn his murder conviction because his lawyer failed to object when the trial judge closed the courtroom during jury selection.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the 7-2 ruling that the error Kentel Weaver’s lawyer committed did not appear to affect the outcome of the case. Weaver was found guilty in the 2003 murder of a 15-year-old boy.

The lawyer’s failure to object prevented Weaver’s mother and others from watching what should have been a public jury selection process. The judge had closed the courtroom because it was overcrowded.

Weaver’s lawyer later testified that he mistakenly believed closing the court for jury selection was permitted. In fact, it violates the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.

But Kennedy said Weaver did not show a “reasonable probability of a different outcome but for counsel’s failure to object.” He said the lawyer’s shortcomings did not lead to a “fundamentally unfair trial.”

Weaver was only 16 years old at the time of murder. Prosecutors said the victim, Germaine Rucker, was attacked by a group of men and boys after selling some jewelry to a woman, and was shot twice.

Witnesses saw a boy wearing a baseball cap pull a pistol from his pants leg. The cap fell off and was recovered by police, who discovered Weaver’s DNA on it. Weaver confessed to his mother, and later, to police when his mother brought him to the police station.

Before trial, the judge ordered the courtroom closed because it was overcrowded with 90 prospective jurors, forcing some to stand in the hallway. Weaver’s mother and a friend tried to get in but were refused entry.

Massachusetts’ highest state court had ruled that the mistake did not affect the fairness of the proceedings and that Weaver was not entitled to a new trial.

Kennedy agreed, even while acknowledging that the judge’s decision to close the courtroom for jury selection was a constitutional violation. But he said it “did not pervade the whole trial or lead to basic unfairness.”

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said a defendant whose lawyer makes a mistake so grave that it undermines the fundamental fairness of a trial should not have the added burden of showing that the error changed the outcome. He was joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

Justices uphold convictions in 1984 murder

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court last Thursday upheld the murder convictions of seven men in a brutal 1984 killing in the District of Columbia.

The justices, by a 6-2 vote, rejected the defendants’ claims that prosecutors withheld evidence that would have made a difference in the outcome of the men’s trial.

The case concerned the killing of 48-year-old Catherine Fuller. Her body was found in a garage about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the U.S. Capitol.

Eight men were convicted of the crime in 1985. One died in prison and one has since been released. The other six remain in prison.

In March, the justices heard competing accounts of the attack on Fuller. Police said the mother of six was attacked on a street, dragged into an alley, beaten and brutally sodomized with a pole in a group attack by members of a neighborhood gang. Her body was left in a garage.

Lawyers for the men said prosecutors did not turn over evidence implicating another man with a record of violent attacks against women as Fuller’s killer.

The justices all agreed that evidence was withheld and the Justice Department has conceded such evidence should be disclosed to defendants.

But Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court that “the withheld evidence is too little, too weak, or too distant to undermine the group attack theory.”

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that evidence “could have mattered.” Kagan said that the defendants could have presented a unified case that pointed to other man as a plausible suspect, if only prosecutors had turned over the evidence.

Instead, the defendants acted individually to avoid being convicted and “formed something of a circular firing squad,” Kagan wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Justice Department was involved in the case because it prosecutes violent crimes in the nation’s capital.

The cases are Turner v. U.S., 15-1503, and Overton v. U.S., 15-1504.

Court limits ability to strip citizenship

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court last Thursday limited the government’s ability to strip U.S. citizenship from immigrants for lying during the naturalization process.

The justices ruled unanimously in favor of an ethnic Serb from Bosnia who lied about her husband’s military service.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court that false statements can lead to the revocation of citizenship only if they “played some role in her naturalization.”

The court rejected the position taken by the Trump administration that even minor lies can lead to loss of citizenship.

The woman, Divna Maslenjak, and her family were granted refugee status in 1999 and settled near Akron, Ohio, in 2000. She became a citizen in 2007.

She initially told immigration officials her husband had not served in the Bosnian Serb military. That was a lie, she later conceded, and lower courts upheld a criminal conviction against her. The conviction automatically revoked her citizenship, and she and her husband were deported in October.

Maslenjak was convicted by a jury that was told even an inconsequential lie was enough for a guilty verdict.

The high court returned the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to determine whether Maslenjak’s false statements made a difference in the decision to grant her citizenship in the first place.

The case is Maslenjak v. U.S., 16-309.