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Court calls for retrial of Skagit County man

Private jury selection interviews violated right to public trial

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Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2012 1:00 am

The state Supreme Court is calling for the retrial of a Skagit County man convicted of child molestation, saying that his right to a public trial was violated during the jury selection process.

The 5-4 court opinion Wednesday effectively reverses the 2004 convictions.

The decision was issued among a trio of cases resolved Wednesday dealing with the right to a public trial. Though the personal restraint petition considered in the Skagit case was filed in August 2008, the court held off on reviewing it pending the resolution of the two other cases dealing with the same matter.

The cases divided the court, but ultimately affirm that privately held jury selection interviews without sufficient justification warrant a retrial.

Skagit County resident Patrick L. Morris was convicted of two counts of first-degree sexual molestation and one count of first-degree rape against a girl who was 5 years old when she disclosed the abuse, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

Morris was sentenced in Skagit County Superior Court to 189 months in prison.

During the jury selection process, attorneys interviewed potential jurors in closed chambers, which the majority of the Supreme Court says violated Morris’ right to a public trial.

Furthermore, the majority opinion says that during a subsequent appeal of the conviction in 2005, Morris’ appellate attorney failed to raise the issue of the public trial violation, making the counsel’s performance deficient.

The Court of Appeals affirmed Morris’ conviction in that case, and the Supreme Court denied his petition for review in 2007.

In his personal restraint petition before the Supreme Court, Morris also raised issues related to the presentation of evidence during his trial, but the majority of the Supreme Court held that he failed to present enough evidence to warrant a retrial on those grounds.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Charles Wiggins points out that Morris never objected to the trial court’s decision to conduct closed juror interviews, nor did that decision result in prejudice in the trial.

Wiggins said he fears “ineffective assistance” of appellate representation will be used as an excuse for a variety of convicted offenders to get a retrial.

“The right to a public trial is not a magic wand granting new trials to all who wield it,” he wrote. “It does not serve the interests of justice to reopen this long-decided case, requiring a young girl to relive old traumas, and granting a windfall new trial.”

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