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Conviction Tossed on Rare 6th Amendment ‘Public Trial’ Grounds

In a rare instance of a conviction being overturned because the defendant was denied his 6th Amendment Rights, a man who conspired to burn down his restaurant and collect the insurance money no longer has prison time to serve.

Sundeep Dharni, 42, had originally received a 15-year prison sentence in 2007 for attempting to burn down his North Natomas restaurant and collect $22,291 from Farmers Insurance on a loss claim. Because spectators, including his family, were briefly kept out of the courtroom during jury selection, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that he did not receive a public trial, thus denying him his 6th Amendment Rights, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The argument that Dharni did not receive a public trial was initially rejected by the trial judge. Dharni was tried and found guilty in July 2007. In 2012, Quin Denvir, who served as the California public defender from 1978 to 1984, and as the federal defender in the Eastern District of California from 1996 to 2005, and who led the defense for “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, took Dharni’s case.

At that point, Dharni had filed a petition of habeas corpus with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Writs of habeas corpus are used to review the legality of the party’s arrest, imprisonment, or detention, according to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University.

Although oral arguments on the petition were not due until September 2103, on March 7, 2013, two circuit judges granted Denvir’s motion for Dharni’s release pending a final decision, writing Dharni “is not likely to flee or pose a danger” and had “demonstrated ‘a high probability of success’ such that this is an ‘extraordinary case.’ ”

In April 2013 Dharni was freed on a $200,000 unsecured appearance bond by U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale Drozd in Sacramento and left prison for good. In July 2014, a split three-judge circuit panel asked a lower court to decide “whether spectators had an opportunity to re-enter the courtroom during (jury selection), including whether seats in fact opened up and, if so, whether spectators would have been aware of the vacancies, and whether the district court and court officials would have allowed the spectators to enter” while jury selection was being held. Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace, dissenting, wrote, “Even if the courtroom closure was not trivial and violated Dharni’s Sixth Amendment rights, we should deny Dharni’s petition because he has not claimed, much less established, that he was actually prejudiced by the closure.”

In January 2015, Denvir and the prosecutor requested that the circuit court permit them to ask the court in Sacramento if it would agree to the government’s motion to dismiss Dharni’s convictions. The circuit agreed, but U.S. District Judge William Shubb, who had taken over for the retired trial judge, refused to overrule the trial judge’s decision, instead sending the case back to the appellate judges. They reversed Shubb on Oct. 6, instructing him to dismiss Dharni’s convictions.

On Oct. 13, Shubb dismissed Dharni’s convictions.

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