Jurors in Wecht case won't be anonymous
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The names of the jurors who will decide the criminal case of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht will not be kept secret.
That was the ruling of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday in a challenge by local news organizations, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab issued an order last month that would have blocked the public and media from having access to the jurors' names, basing his decision on "unprecedented" media coverage.
The 3rd Circuit held yesterday that the news media should have access to the jurors' names prior to their swearing-in.
The news organizations had challenged Judge Schwab's order, arguing that an anonymous jury was unnecessary and limited the public's ability to ensure the trial was conducted fairly.
"Anonymous juries should be used, if at all, only when there is a compelling reason for confidentiality and no less-restrictive alternative," said Post-Gazette attorney David J. Bird. "Here, there is no compelling reason for withholding the names of jurors from the public."
The appeals court did not issue its supporting opinion on the matter, but said it would at a later date.
The three judges on the panel were D. Michael Fisher, D. Brooks Smith and Franklin Van Antwerpen.
Judge Van Antwerpen disagreed with the two-judge majority and said that he would have kept the names of the jurors secret until the conclusion of the trial.
"[The] findings and order of the trial judge concerning the relentless media attention, trial length, known enemies of defendant Wecht, and potential for juror intimidation in this marathon case are sufficiently compelling and narrowly tailored to allow the names and addresses of the trial jurors to be withheld from the media," he wrote.
The seating of an anonymous jury typically is reserved for cases involving violence and organized crime.
Such a jury has been used in the Western District of Pennsylvania twice -- in the retrial of the leader of a large cocaine ring and in the death penalty case of a man accused of killing the father of a witness against him.
As part of its challenge, the media also requested that the process for picking the jury be done in open court.
The appeals court denied that request. Instead, Judge Schwab will follow the original plan he set out, which is for members of the jury pool to fill out a 25-page questionnaire.
Attorneys for both sides, who will be forbidden from knowing the jurors' names until the pool of 400 is down to 40, will then go through the forms looking for possible conflicts that would render a person unsuitable for service.
Jury selection begins today. Opening statements are set for Jan. 28. Dr. Wecht faces 41 counts, including mail and wire fraud and theft of honest services. Prosecutors contend he used his public office for private gain.
Dr. Wecht denies the allegations.
First Published January 10, 2008 12:00 am