SACRAMENTO (AP) — A man serving a 15-year prison sentence for conspiring to burn down his Sacramento restaurant had his conviction thrown out on the rare argument that his trial was not actually public.
Sundeep Dharni, 42, walked free last month because spectators, including some members of his family, were briefly excluded from the courtroom during at least part of jury selection to make room for an unusually large pool of prospective jurors, the Sacramento Bee reported Sunday.
Dharni’s lawyer, Quin Denvir, argued successfully in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that Dharni was denied his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, an argument that had been made and rejected by the trial judge before Denvir accepted a court appointment to the case.
Dharni was tried and found guilty in July 2007. He was sentenced to 15 years for trying to burn down the restaurant he was preparing to open, and for collecting $22,291 from Farmers Insurance on a loss claim.
Dharni was serving his sentence in 2012 when Denvir, who has a national reputation as an effective appellate lawyer, was appointed as his new attorney.
In July 2014, a split three-judge circuit panel sent the case back to Sacramento for additions to be made to the record reflecting the scope of the courtroom closure, and for the lower court to decide “whether spectators had an opportunity to re-enter the courtroom during (jury selection)” while jury selection was underway.
The parties agreed it would be next to impossible to come up with precise answers to the circuit’s questions about 7 1/2 -year-old events. Instead, in January Denvir and the prosecutor asked the circuit to let them find out whether the court in Sacramento would grant a motion by the government to dismiss Dharni’s convictions, conditioned upon Dharni’s acceptance of a plea agreement and a re-sentence to time served.
The circuit granted the request, which was signed for the government by Assistant U.S. Attorney Audrey Hemesath.
“I’m gratified that the government would consider such a reasonable solution,” Denvir said in an interview. “Ms. Hemesath was a pleasure to work with. She listens to what you have to say and takes it seriously.