N.J. high court explains ruling upholding ban on media contact with jurors
By The Associated Press
TRENTON, N.J. Prosecutors might get an unfair advantage in the retrial of a rabbi accused of arranging his wife's murder if they hear media reports of what jurors in the original trial thought of their case, the state Supreme Court said in a July 18 opinion.
The opinion supports the rights of defendants in death-penalty cases and explains a 5-2 decision released by the Supreme Court in April.
The court decided to strike down part of a judge's order barring news media from publishing the names of jurors, but to uphold a prohibition on reporters contacting jurors.
It's the latest step in the complex legal saga surrounding former Cherry Hill Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, who is accused of arranging the 1994 murder of his wife, Carol. A jury in November deadlocked on whether Neulander was guilty, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Superior Court Judge Linda G. Baxter then refused to relax her rule barring reporters from contacting jurors, saying that more publicity would hurt Neulander's chance of getting an unbiased jury for a second trial.
Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, then challenged Baxter's order.
Justice Gary S. Stein and four other justices rejected the rationale of Baxter and a state appeals court, which said that published details about the first jury's deliberations would make it harder to find an impartial panel for a retrial, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 3.
The judges said the bigger concern was that prosecutors would learn which parts of their case gave jurors doubts, allowing them to prepare for the new trial accordingly.
"The obvious distinction is that the juror identities were disclosed in open court proceedings attended by media representatives. In comparison, jury deliberations, presumably the primary subject of the media's request to interview jurors, are a closed proceeding attended by no one but the deliberating jurors," Stein wrote in his majority opinion.
The court majority's reasoning bothered Justice Virginia A. Long, who wrote a dissent also signed by Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz.
"The minimal incremental potential impact of a former juror's statements on the State's retrial case, if any, is trivial in light of the extensive publicity about every other aspect of the case, from the killing of Carol Neulander and her husband's arrest and indictment through the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the first trial and beyond," Long wrote.
Editors for the Inquirer said they would ask the state court to reconsider but that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court remained a possibility.
Neulander defense lawyer Dennis Wixted said the opinion was not an affront to the First Amendment because it restricts the media only in death penalty cases in which the guilt phase ends in a hung jury.
Four Inquirer reporters were found to be in contempt last month for violating the judge's ban on contacting jurors.
The reporters are appealing their convictions and sentences. Each was fined $1,000, and three were ordered to spend time on a work detail.
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