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Pounders v. Watson
United States Supreme Court
521 U.S. 982 (1997)
Penelope Watson was an attorney representing a defendant in a murder trial with multiple defendants. During the trial, the trial court ruled that defendants could not discuss potential jail sentences that might be imposed and announced this ruling in open court. The ruling included the finding that such discussions were prejudicial to the proceeding before the jury because the case did not involve the death penalty. The trial court went on to admonish several attorneys during the next few days at sidebar discussions. Watson was seated nearby at a table during the sidebar discussions. Watson’s cocounsel apologized in open court for disobeying the order, and the trial court again reminded counsel of the ruling. Approximately two months later, Watson began conducting the direct examination of her client. Watson asked her client whether he had been facing the death penalty until the trial started, and the prosecution objected. The court agreed with the objection and directed Watson to follow the court’s admonitions. Immediately after that, Watson asked her client whether he was facing the potential sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The trial court stopped the questioning and called Watson to the bench. The judge asked why she did not follow the court’s order. Watson replied that she did not believe the question was covered by the previous ruling and that she was not present for the previous sidebars where her cocounsel was admonished. The next day, the trial court entered a written ruling finding Watson in contempt and imposing a two-day jail sentence to be served after trial. The trial court asked Watson again to explain her actions while the jury was deliberating, and Watson repeated her position. The trial court reaffirmed the finding of contempt, noting that the question likely permanently prejudiced the jury. Watson filed a federal habeas corpus petition, which was denied. Watson appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the use of the summary contempt procedure was not appropriate because Watson’s conduct was not disruptive. That decision was appealed.
Rule of Law
Holding and Reasoning (Per curiam)
Dissent (Stevens, J.)
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