Wecht jurors' names must be made public
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A federal appeals court again ruled yesterday that the names of jurors in the criminal case against former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht must be made public, calling it a "well-established part of American judicial tradition."
In its latest rebuke of U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he gave insufficient reasons for keeping jurors' names secret and said he did not comply with the spirit of an earlier order that the names be made public.
The appeals court panel held that if a district judge wants to seat an anonymous jury, he or she must give very specific findings as justification. They characterized the reasons cited by Judge Schwab as "conclusory and generic."
Despite the appeals court's January order that Judge Schwab make public the names of the jurors seated in the trial before they were sworn, the judge only allowed the names of the seated jurors to be read once in open court, and later issued a list of all prospective jurors, without distinguishing who had been chosen.
Dr. Wecht's first trial ended with a hung jury in April. The government plans to retry him, but activity in the case is on hold pending an appeal -- also at the 3rd Circuit -- which will be argued Monday in Pittsburgh before the same panel of judges.
In its opinion, the majority cited a 1st Circuit decision that held that public knowledge of juror names ensures impartiality in the administration of justice, as well as fairness and confidence in the court system.
Judge Schwab's reasoning "would justify anonymity in virtually every jury trial, whether or not it attracts media attention, since almost all defendants have friends and enemies who might be inclined to influence jurors," the 3rd Circuit said.
Among the reasons cited by the judge in his original order were overwhelming media attention and the possibility that news organizations would use the information to interview prospective jurors' families or friends, possibly disrupting the trial.
Third Circuit Judges D. Brooks Smith and D. Michael Fisher did not find those compelling.
"Of course, in a given case, a risk of jury tampering or excessive media harassment may exist," they wrote. "But we are satisfied that district judges are well-positioned to address these risks on a case-by-case basis, and in such cases, to make particularized findings on the record."
Yesterday's opinion did not address a local rule in the Western District of Pennsylvania since July 2006 stating that "all jurors shall be identified in court during the jury selection process by his/her assigned juror number only. A prospective juror shall no longer be identified by or identify himself or herself by name."
Despite that, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette attorney David J. Bird called the opinion important.
The decision "should create a precedent that makes it clear that in most circumstances the use of a truly anonymous jury will not be proper," he said.
In a dissenting opinion longer than the majority's, Senior Appeals Court Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen said that he believes the decision will cause problems at the district court level.
"It amounts to impermissible micromanagement of procedures and decisions that are properly delegated to the discretion of district judges," he wrote.
First Published August 2, 2008 12:00 am