Hiding the Identity of Potential Jurors

By Kirtley, Jane | American Journalism Review, June 1997 | Go to article overview
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Hiding the Identity of Potential Jurors

Kirtley, Jane, American Journalism Review

When do privacy concerns override the right to know?

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 resulted in the deaths of 168 people, with hundreds more seriously wounded in what the Washington Post called "the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil."

In April, jury selection began in the case of United States vs. McVeigh in federal district court in Denver. Presiding Judge Richard Matsch decided that the case would be tried by an "anonymous" jury.

He sealed all records that could reveal the identity of those summoned for jury selection. Most of the juror questioning, or voir dire, was held in open court. But when attorneys challenged potential jurors for "cause"--factors that might indicate the juror was prejudiced and could not rule fairly in the case--the matter was heard in closed sessions from which the press and public were barred. Presumably, this was intended to save prospective jurors from embarrassment.

In a most unusual move, Matsch also ordered that a partition be placed in the courtroom, obscuring the jurors from the view of spectators on the left side of the public seating area, although not from those on the right.

Guess where the press was required to sit? Not only were no cameras allowed in the courtroom other than the closed-circuit camera beaming the proceedings to the remote viewing center for victims in Oklahoma City, Matsch presumably wanted to make sure that members of the news media could not recognize and confront members of the jury pool outside of the courthouse.

As a consequence of these orders, the identities of the jurors will be known only to the court and to the parties in the case. In light of the use of anonymous juries in high-profile cases in recent years, such as the federal trial of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King and the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, Matsch's decision may seem like business as usual. But in fact, it represents the latest eruption in a growing epidemic of secrecy that is shrouding the selection and identity of the individuals who sit in judgment of their fellow citizens.

It was not always so. Under the English common law system imported to the American colonies, public jury selection was the norm. A classic example of the salutary effects of this practice was the seditious libel trial of John Peter Zenger, the immigrant printer and free press icon, in 1735.

The court clerk had tried to "pack" the jury with potential members who either were not eligible to serve, or who were expected to be sympathetic to the colonial governor who had been skewered in the newspaper.

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