Press Right of Access Outweighs Juror Privacy; Louisiana Supreme Court Rules Press Can See Voir Dire Questionnaires in Jury Selection

Article excerpt

DOES A PROSPECTIVE juror's right to privacy override the press' right of access to questionnaires used in the jury-selection process?

No, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded in an order that directed a trial judge to make public the voir dire questionnaires used in the controversial manslaughter trial of a Baton Rouge man who shot and killed a Japanese exchange student he mistook for a prowler.

The Advocate in Baton Rouge had appealed state District Judge Mike Erwin's denial of press access to the questionnaires on the grounds that it would violate the privacy of the jurors, who had not been told that the information may be released to the press.

The manslaughter trial of Rodney Peairs in the Oct. 17, 1992, shooting death of 16-year-old Yoshihiro Hattori, who mistakenly came to Peairs' home thinking it was the address of a Halloween party, attracted international attention, particularly in Japan. The incident became a cause celebre for gun-control advocates, and the trial provided grist for a series in the "Doonesbury" comic strip.

Peairs was acquitted May 23, so the high court's decision came too late for trial coverage.

The seven-day trial began May 17, and 39 prospective jurors were screened during three days of voir dire proceedings. An eight-page, 51-item questionnaire was submitted to them to speed the process.

Advocate reporter Tim Talley sought access to questionnaires May 20.

"I had a blank copy, so I knew what the questions were. I wanted to know the basic mental composition of the jury, the mind-set of these people, where they were coming from, if they had guns in their homes. A lot [of the questions] are real basic information, all of which would normally have been asked in open court."

Among the questions that intrigued Talley were "What are the three most important lessons to teach your children?" and "What three well-known people, living or dead, do you admire most?" The questionnaire also asked prospective jurors if they kept guns in their homes, if they or a close relative or friend had been a victim of crime or if they or a relative had been convicted of a crime.

"I was just interested in seeing what they said"' Talley explained.

May 21, Erwin ruled against the Advocate, stating that the prospective jurors did not expect their responses to be turned over to the media.

"I had covered the courts for five years and I think they trusted me, but they weren't too sure what the Japanese press might do with it [the information on the questionnaires]," Talley said.

Capital City Press, parent company of the Advocate, appealed the ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Baton Rouge May 24, the day after Peairs' acquittal. When the state appeals court indicated that it would not act on the Advocate's petition until June 3, the paper obtained an order from the Louisiana Supreme Court directing the appeals court to act within two days. …