Monday, August 4, 2008
In a ruling that could have far-reaching effects on the handling of high-profile trials, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the media has a presumptive right of access to the names of jurors, and that a Pittsburgh federal judge erred when he sought to empanel an anonymous jury in the corruption trial of former Allegheny County coroner Cyril H. Wecht.
"The prospect that the press might publish background stories about the jurors is not a legally sufficient reason to withhold the jurors' names from the public. Although such stories might make some jurors less willing to serve or more distracted from the case, this is a necessary cost of the openness of the judicial process," 3rd Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote in United States v. Wecht.
The court's 118-page decision included a lengthy dissent by Senior 3rd Circuit Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen that said the ruling "effectively creates a new constitutional right" and "sets a precedent of permitting our court to micro-manage trial procedures established by the district courts."
Van Antwerpen complained that "requiring district courts to bow to media demands to know the names of prospective jurors would certainly impair the public good in many cases."
For a more in-depth analysis of the Wecht opinion, check The Legal Intelligencer later this week.
The decision was handed down just one business day before the same three-judge panel is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Pittsburgh today on the issue of whether all charges against Wecht should be dismissed on double jeopardy grounds as a result of the procedures followed by the trial judge in declaring a mistrial in April when the jury said it was deadlocked.
Wecht's defense team, led by attorneys Richard L. Thornburgh and David R. Fine of K&L Gates, argues in the appeal that U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab denied Wecht's right to object when the judge declared a mistrial and immediately scheduled a retrial in the presence of the not-yet-discharged jurors.
In their brief, the defense team argues that the "right to be free from double jeopardy mandates that a district judge exercise 'scrupulous' and 'extraordinary' care to be certain that there is no alternative to a mistrial."
The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure mandate an inquiry by the judge prior to declaring a mistrial, they argue, in order to "give the defendant an opportunity to dissuade a judge from granting a mistrial even when doing so would not be an abuse of discretion." [Mark Godsey]