In criminal trials, witness sequestration refers to excluding people who plan to testify from the courtroom while other witnesses are testifying. The purpose of witness sequestration is to prevent a witness’ testimony from being influenced by the testimony of other witnesses. The rule is not absolute, of course. The defendant in a case has the right to be present throughout the trial, regardless of whether the defendant plans to testify. In the trial court’s discretion, other witnesses essential to the presentation of the case may also be allowed to remain in the courtroom. In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Presson, W2012-00023-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 4-24-2014), the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling allowing the State’s lead detective to remain in the courtroom during a trial for rape of a child and aggravated sexual battery.
Generally, when a witness who plans to testify is allowed to remain in the courtroom to assist in the presentation of the case, courts may prefer the witness to testify prior to the testimony of other witnesses. But even in cases where the witness does not testify first, it may be difficult for the opposing side to successfully appeal a ruling allowing the witness to remain.
In the Presson case, the Defendant requested the sequestration of the State’s lead investigating detective, who was planning to testify in the case. Alternatively, they asked that the detective testify prior to other witnesses. The State argued that the detective’s presence and knowledge of the case was essential to their presentation, which involved a large number of individual counts of alleged sexual abuse. The trial court allowed the detective to remain and did not require that she testify first.
On appeal of the ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals noted that operation of the sequestration rule is within the trial court’s discretion and will not be considered error on appeal unless the complaining party can show an abuse of discretion which prejudiced that party at trial. Because in this case, there was nothing in the record to suggest that the detective changed her testimony or was improperly influenced in her testimony by the testimony of other witnesses who testified before her, the Court concluded there was no basis for appellate relief regarding this ruling.
For more information on witness sequestration during a criminal trial, contact Hindman & Associates.