1. “Is holding a jury trial in the county’s designated auxiliary courtroom located in the same public building as the county jail and Sheriff’s Department inherently prejudicial to the presumption of innocence?”
2. “Was the use of the auxiliary courtroom justified when the trial judge’s findings support the determination that he sought to: (1) prevent exposing jurors to Appellant in shackles and jail attire, (2) alleviate security concerns, and (3) provide adequate trial facilities?”
Before Nixon’s capital murder trial, the local prosecutor proposed using the county’s auxiliary courtroom instead of the county’s traditional/historic courthouse for the upcoming jury trial. The auxiliary courtroom was located in a county building shared by the sheriff’s department and the county jail; however, the outside of the building was labeled “Medina County Jail.” Nixon objected to using the auxiliary courtroom, contending that it was inherently prejudicial and would violate his presumption of innocence. The visiting trial judge overruled the objection, concluding that security issues, potential commingling of jurors with Nixon, lack of bathroom facilities, and lack of technology justified using the auxiliary courtroom. Nixon was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The court of appeals reversed Nixon’s conviction. It held that “under the facts of this case, the various markings reminding the jury that the building at issue here has a primary purpose as a jail created an unacceptable risk that the jury would conclude, before hearing any evidence, that Nixon is too dangerous to transport and must be isolated from society.” It then concluded that the auxiliary courtroom’s use was not supported by an “essential state interest specific to this trial.”
The State contends that the auxiliary courtroom was not inherently prejudicial. The general population would view a building’s housing of a public courtroom, a jail, and a Sheriff’s Department as mutually exclusive, regardless of the building’s outer sign. Unlike shackling and jail attire, the building’s exterior designation as a jail was not personal to Nixon or an active or purposeful arrangement directed at him. Further, comparing the attributes of the traditional courthouse and the auxiliary courtroom negated inherent prejudice. In either circumstance, jurors would contemplate pretrial incarceration―a fact unknown to jurors―and security measures would be viewed as the status quo. When there are competing inferences that can be drawn from certain courtroom arrangements, there is no inherent prejudice.
Additionally, the State contends that the actual trial circumstances refute inherent prejudice. The trial was during the height of COVID-19 shutdowns, and the jurors had been selected before entering the building and thus knew they were there for jury service.
Finally, even assuming inherent prejudice, the State claims that using the auxiliary courtroom was justified. As a threshold matter, the State challenges the lower court for faulting the trial judge for not making specific findings that other reasonable alternatives were considered. The State points out Nixon did not object on this basis, and such findings are not required. Regardless, the trial judge considered an alternative (i.e., the traditional courthouse) and made case-specific findings. Notably, his findings were tailored to the arguments of the local prosecutor and the witness testimony on the issue.