Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Roy: Counsel's absence from courtroom is not structural error

In U.S. v. Roy, No. 12-15093 (April 26, 2017), the Court (en banc) (8-3) in a 281-page opinion held that harmless error, not structural error, applied to determine whether defense counsel’s absence from the courtroom during the questioning of a prosecution witness at trial was reversible error. The Court recognized that in Cronic, the Supreme Court held that structural error occurs when a criminal defendant has been denied the assistance of counsel at a critical stage of the trial. But defense counsel “was present during 99.6 percent of Roy’s trial, and he vigorously represented Roy.” The Court reasoned that the 18 questions and answers that Roy’s counsel missed were not a “stage” or “critical stage” of a trial, because they did not constitute a separate step in the trial process, or a discrete phase of it. The Court also noted that it was able to make a prejudice analysis because it knew the precise questions and answers that defense counsel missed out on. The Court concluded that the error caused by counsel’s absence was harmless as to the single attempted child enticement charge, noting that in addition to the six images of child pornography mentioned during counsel’s absence, “the jury was presented with overwhelming and irrefutable evidence of Roy’s sexual interest in minor girls.” As to the counts of possession of child pornography, the evidence was also “overwhelming.”