On Full Reporting
Of Jury Trials
Public Trial vs. Fair Trial
By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Sept. 14, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
There are certain rights guaranteed by the both the state Constitution and the federal Constitution that form the core of our criminal justice system. They are the right to trial by a jury and the right to a public trial. In the proper administration of justice those rights intertwine to provide criminal defendants with what we call "due process of law." In Bridgeport this past week those rights collided.
Russell Peeler was convicted in Bridgeport Superior Court for his role in the heinous murders of Karen Clark and her 8 year old son, B.J. Brown. Clark was the fiancé of another Peeler murder victim, Russell Snead. Young B.J. was listed as a witness by the state in that pending murder trial. In January, 1999, Peeler engineered the execution of the boy and his mother. Peeler's brother, Adrian, another member of his violent drug organization, was convicted of conspiracy in the killing and sentenced to 20 years.
Peeler was confined to his home on an electronic bracelet at the time of the murders, but the state proved that he masterminded the senseless slayings. He was convicted of two counts of capital felony but the same jury deadlocked on the issue of the death penalty, prompting the judge to sentence him to life terms. Peeler's conviction was upheld on appeal; however, the state was able to prevail in its claim that the penalty phase should be tried anew.
Earlier this summer prosecutors and defense lawyers began the arduous task of selecting 12 jurors and alternates. In capital cases jurors must be "death qualified" a macabre term; that is, they must articulate that they are morally and intellectually capable of returning a verdict of death if the evidence warrants it. Those who oppose the death penalty on moral or religious grounds cannot serve. The law imposes no greater burden on citizen participants in the trial process, than judging whether someone should live or die.
After long weeks, and intensive examination, the panel was finally assembled and evidence scheduled to commence this past week. Sunday, the front page of the Connecticut Post displayed a mock up of the jury box, each chair filled not only with the names and town of the jurors and alternates, but in many cases a detailed description of what they did. The next day defense lawyers demanded a mistrial. Prosecutors and defense lawyers, alike, castigated the Post for this reckless exercise of the First Amendment. Two of the jurors refused to continue, prompting the court to excuse them and replace them with alternates.
Regardless of the verdict by this jury, the conduct of the Post will be the subject of lengthy appeals. Post editor, Jim Smith, attempted to defend the paper's action citing the public's right to be present at trial and noting that the news media is an extension of that right. Lost in that argument is consideration for the rights of the third group of participants in the trial process-the jury.
In the context of jury selection, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that jurors, as well as defendants, have constitutional rights. The court has ruled that lawyers must exercise their peremptory challenges (the strikes each party is permitted to employ to eliminate potential jurors) in both a racially and gender neutral manner. These landmark decisions recognized that prospective jurors have constitutional rights that must be honored in the selection process.
True, the public has a right to attend trials. True also, jurors' names are not withheld and are noted on the court record. True as well, is the important public interest served in such an egregious case when the press accurately and dispassionately reports the progress of a criminal trial. The question for the Post that remains unanswered is not whether it possessed the right to publish these names, but rather whether there should be respect accorded to those jurors in the exercise of that right. One must ask what greater public good was served by this action.
The Post has taken a leadership position on the continuing debate about secrecy in certain aspects of our state courts, involving the sealing of court files. This latest act does not advance the freedom of the press. No one was denying the Post the right to publish. It was in the choice to exercise that right, merely because it could, that the Post has failed.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, American Academy of Trial Counsel. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com
Posted, Sep. 13, 2007
Updated, Sep. 14, 2007
Tradition Defied: Connecticut Newspaper Names Jurors
When is it appropriate to identify jurors, and when do privacy concerns trump the principle of open courts?
By Al Tompkins
n their two and a half decades working as jury consultants in such high-profile cases as the OJ Simpson trial, the Scott Peterson trail and the Enron trial, Dave Zagorski and Jo-Ellan Dimitrius said they have never seen journalists do what the Connecticut Post did last Sunday.
The Post ran a front page color graphic that took up nearly half of the page and a 90-column-inch story naming the jurors who had just been seated in a sentencing trial that began this week and is projected to last two months.
It is an unusual story to begin with. The 12-person Superior Court jury must decide only whether Russell Peeler Jr. should get the death penalty or life in prison for killing an 8-year-old boy and his mother. A previous jury found him guilty, but deadlocked on whether he should die for his crime. The state Supreme Court ordered a second jury to be empaneled just to decide that question.
The Post story not only named the jurors but also reported the communities many of them live in, where they work, how old they are and in some cases what they think about the death penalty. When Judge Robert Devlin Jr. told the jury what the paper published, one juror and one alternate juror asked to be excused from duty. One juror said she was concerned about retaliation. The second woman said she was worried about her children's safety. From May until August, it had taken four painstaking months of questioning, or voir dire as it is called in court, for lawyers to pick 12 jurors, four alternates and two backup alternates, and the panel had already lost one of the regular jurors due to health problems.
The reporter and the editor for the story say the public should know who is deciding a case, especially a high-profile case. But jury consultants and a former judge say publishing juror names while the trial is underway almost certainly would be solid grounds for an appeal. The jury selection was held in open court and there is no law that uniformly forbids journalists from publishing jurors' names. Even so, journalists seldom publish or broadcast juror names, especially before or during a trial.