Identity Protection; Maryland, Virginia Mull Proposals for Juries to Be Anonymous in All Trials

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

Identity Protection; Maryland, Virginia Mull Proposals for Juries to Be Anonymous in All Trials


Byline: Kristi Jourdan, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Stephen Cardosi, the foreman in the Scott Peterson murder trial, has some advice for states considering anonymous jurors in all crimes. So does fellow juror Mike Belmessieri, and they don't agree.

Hounded by reporters who wrote down his license-plate number and called him at 3 a.m., Mr. Cardosi says no one has the right to his or any other juror's identity.

The public still has a First Amendment right to know about the person who committed the crime, but you don't have the right to know my private information, Mr. Cardosi, a 34-year-old paramedic and firefighter, said.

That would be like me walking up to a girl and saying, 'Hey, I have a right to know your phone number.'"

Mr. Belmessieri faced much of the same scrutiny in the high-profile California murder trial in which Peterson was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and unborn child. Yet he strongly disagrees. He says the stakes are too high and jurors need to take responsibility for their decisions, including who they are.

If I'm going to send someone to the death house, I'd better be able to stand tall and look someone square in the eyes and say, 'I did it,'" said Mr. Belmessieri, a 60-year-old retired police officer and Vietnam-era Marine.

Maryland and Virginia judiciaries are carefully considering both sides of the issue as they debate proposals that could make them the first states in the nation to mandate anonymous juries for all trials.

According to the National Center for State Courts, no states currently use anonymous juries for all criminal or civil trials, though most allow them as an option. A handful of other states are joining Maryland and Virginia in considering sweeping anonymity proposals, including California and Ohio.

Under the Maryland and Virginia proposals, a juror's name, age, telephone numbers, address and occupation, along with other personal information, would be kept confidential from all parties involved until after a trial is completed. For the sake of identifying a juror, each individual would receive a number from the clerk of the court for jury selection and the trial.

The proposals aim to protect a juror's privacy and, by not using anonymity selectively, avoid implying to jurors that the defendant in this case is dangerous. That runs contrary to a defendant's presumption of innocence, proponents of universal-anonymity say. Critics, including free-press advocates and some defense lawyers, strongly disagree.

The Virginia Supreme Court is considering a jury-anonymity proposal from the Advisory Committee on Rules of the Court. A 2008 Virginia law allows judges to limit access to juror information if there is good cause - meaning the chance for physical injury, bribery, tampering or harassment to occur.

But Delegate Robert G. Marshall, the Prince William County Republican who introduced the bill after some judges in his county complained of jury intimidation in gang-related cases, said he intended to give them the ability to conceal juror information at their discretion - not create a blanket law for all cases.

I don't know if we can craft [the law] any better, Mr. Marshall said. I don't object or accept the proposal out of hand. I know a lot of people don't like to become jurors in criminal trials because someone is uneasy, but it's obviously a necessary component of the criminal justice system.

The Maryland proposal from the Maryland Circuit Judges' Association, is being reviewed by the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, which advises that state's high court.

Former Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, who heads the committee reviewing the proposal for the high court, said he understands why the state would consider the change, though he is unsure whether he will support it.

Typically, in urban areas, jurors are nervous and frightened, Judge Wilner said. …

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