Media challenge juror secrecy in Wecht case
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Three local news organizations yesterday filed a challenge with the federal appeals court, arguing that withholding jurors' names in the criminal case against former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht violates the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab issued an order last week in which he determined that the names and addresses of the 400 people in the initial jury pool will be protected from all parties involved, including government and defense attorneys.
It is only when the pool is reduced to 40 that Judge Schwab will allow just the attorneys -- and not the public or the media -- to learn the names. Even then, lawyers are not allowed to record the names, leave the courtroom with them, or use any kind of computer or electronic device to run any background checks on them.
Judge Schwab based his decision on what he called "unprecedented media coverage" of Dr. Wecht's case.
Attorneys for the news organizations -- the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Tribune-Review and WPXI -- said that seating an anonymous jury in this case is unnecessary.
"If prosecutors, judges or jurors can act in total or partial secrecy or anonymously -- that diminishes the ability of the public to hold them responsible for their actions," they wrote.
They also said they were unable to find any precedent in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for seating an anonymous jury in a white-collar crime.
"Simply, allegations of the misuse of faxes do not give rise to the same juror concerns that might exist in a trial of drug lords or mafia hit men," they said.
Neither the government nor defense requested an anonymous jury, and Dr. Wecht's attorneys plan to file their own appeal on that and other issues with the 3rd Circuit soon.
The trial on 84 criminal counts, including mail and wire fraud, is scheduled to begin Jan. 28. Jury selection begins on Jan. 10.
In its 22-page motion, the media argue that having jury selection done in the courtroom in public is "essential" in evaluating and understanding the trial proceedings.
In his opinion, Judge Schwab wrote that he believed the news organizations would use juror information to interview their friends, colleagues or family members, and possibly disrupt the trial.
Attorneys for those organizations say that's not the case.
"The media is not requesting anything special -- just that the voir dire be conducted in open court and not by paper only and that the names of potential and empanelled jurors be called in open court," the lawyers wrote. "At that point the media couldn't influence the jurors, if it wanted to -- which it doesn't."
The media have asked the appeals court for either summary reversal of Judge Schwab's order, or a stay in the trial proceedings pending a decision.
First Published December 28, 2007 12:00 am