Judge keeps shield on jurors' names in Wecht case
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The federal judge who will preside at the criminal trial of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht will allow attorneys to know the names and addresses of potential jurors, but only after the jury pool has been narrowed from 400 to 40.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab said the lawyers will be allowed to see the names and addresses of the pool of 40 jurors, but not allowed to record them in any way. Nor are they permitted to bring computers, cell phones or any other electronic device into the courtroom to run the names through any public database.
The names will not be permitted to leave the courtroom at any time.
Yesterday's decision did not satisfy Dr. Wecht's lawyers, who had objected to an anonymous jury, claiming that their client has been involved in thousands of cases during his career and therefore has made enemies. By not knowing potential jurors' names, it would be impossible to ensure that no one with a grudge was seated, they argued.
"The damage has already been done by then," said defense lawyer Jerry McDevitt, who claims that he needs the names for the entire jury pool. "The determination [of the 40 finalists] will be made sight unseen and name unknown."
To ensure the jurors' confidentiality, Judge Schwab will require that the global managing partner for the law firm representing Dr. Wecht and U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan file a certification promising they will keep the jurors' names secret.
Judge Schwab also ruled that the news media, who also objected to an anonymous jury, do not have a right to personal identifying information of potential jurors. He said he would release juror questionnaires -- without names -- at the conclusion of the trial.
"Given the intense, unprecedented, and relentless media attention to date in this case, the court ... finds that empaneling an innominate jury will provide the prospective jurors a necessary level of security and inconspicuousness that this court deems warranted," he said.
In his 64-page opinion, Judge Schwab said that if juror names were released to the media there would be a "real potential" that they would publish stories about prospective jurors, including interviewing family members, co-workers and friends.
"If they want the names, they want to do 'reporting,'" he wrote, noting that that could have an impact on jurors' willingness to serve and remain fair and unbiased.
Walter P. DeForest, attorney for WPXI-TV who wrote the media brief on the issue, said media access to jurors' names would enable reporters to represent the public and evaluate court procedures.
"For example, if a potential juror is related to someone in the case, that would be significant," Mr. DeForest said. "As for empaneled jurors, the composition of the panel could be very significant and newsworthy."
W. Thomas McGough Jr., who represents the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said he was not aware of any previous problem of reporters contacting jurors or family members prior to or during a trial. "I think the court overstates the potential for media mischief," he said.
The news organizations have appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and plan to ask for a stay of the trial pending its consideration.
In a separate ruling filed yesterday, Judge Schwab said the defense will not be permitted to call several witnesses it named, including Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Dr. Wecht has claimed that his prosecution was politically motivated because of a disagreement he had with Mr. Zappala.
Judge Schwab also denied a defense motion for sanctions against Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings, saying it had no merit.
Mr. McDevitt filed the motion Thursday, accusing Mr. Stallings of misconduct when he filed a brief alleging that Dr. Wecht intimidates witnesses.
To support his point, Mr. Stallings quoted from two letters sent by Dr. Wecht to Gerald Schiller, a Penn Hills man with whom he'd exchanged letters to the editor in local newspapers.
Yesterday, Judge Schwab revealed that he received a letter from Mr. Schiller on Dec. 5, which encouraged him to stand by his decision to restrict access to jurors' identities.
"It is obvious from the content of [Dr. Wecht's] letters that they had done considerable research to discover our exact address, the racial makeup of our neighborhood and even the gardening hobby of my wife," Mr. Schiller wrote.
Mr. McDevitt said he is considering Dr. Wecht's options and most likely will seek 3rd Circuit review of Judge Schwab's order on jurors.
In particular, he said he will ask the court to reconsider a previous decision it made in the case.
Though he wouldn't specify, last year Dr. Wecht asked the appeals court to remove Judge Schwab from the case, alleging bias.
The three-judge panel refused the request in a split decision, which included a strongly worded dissenting opinion.
First Published December 22, 2007 12:00 am