April 25, 2019
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the right to confront one’s accusers, and the right to a public trial. What happens when those interests conflict with each other?
On a winter night in 2009, Davina Sparks was sitting in a car with her boyfriend and her 2-year-old daughter when a man approached the passenger-side window. Upon recognizing the man, the boyfriend got out of the car. Suddenly, another man emerged from behind a van and shot the boyfriend nine times. He was later pronounced dead at a nearby Philadelphia hospital.
Sparks escaped and found two police officers. She joined them in a drive around the neighborhood, where the man who had appeared at the car window was spotted. Eventually, the police were able to arrest a suspected shooter as well––and when they put him in a photo lineup, Sparks identified him as the guilty party.
Tyreese Cooper was indicted for murder. Sparks testified at the trial, but she is Muslim, and asked to testify with a veil covering her face and head in keeping with her faith. Cooper’s attorneys wanted the court to order that she remove it, arguing that he could not “confront” his accuser if she were wearing a veil (back in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to confront one’s accusers was violated when the child victim of an alleged sexual assault was permitted to testify from behind a screen so that the child did not have to see the defendant).
The trial court had a tough decision to make, since whatever it did, someone’s constitutional rights were going to be violated. In this case, the judge decided to require that Sparks remove her veil, but — to protect her against unnecessary embarrassment — it also closed the courtroom to all spectators while she testified, despite the 6th Amendment’s guarantee of a public trial.
Cooper was convicted and, on appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision, ruling that the court had struck a reasonable balance between the various competing constitutional interests.
I’m glad I’m not a judge.