Missouri high court: Jurors' names should be public
By The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS Just days before a new rule keeping secret the names of jurors in criminal cases was to take effect statewide, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed itself and decided jurors' names should not be secret after all.
In a ruling issued Dec. 24, the state Supreme Court said jurors' names "shall be presumptively open to the public" and may only be kept secret in cases where a judge finds a compelling reason. The new rule is binding in local courts.
The reversal came after several news media outlets wrote about the new rule and some officially protested it.
On Dec. 11, six of the seven Supreme Court judges met with editors from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star and Springfield News-Leader, three of the state's largest newspapers, along with representatives of the Missouri Press Association. The meeting, in a courtroom in Jefferson City, lasted about 45 minutes.
Judge Gene Hamilton of Calloway County, chairman of the court's committee on criminal procedure, which had drafted the secrecy rule, also attended. That 11-member committee consisted of judges, prosecutors, a defense attorney, a public defender, an assistant attorney general and a law professor.
The idea to seal jurors' identities in criminal cases came after an appeals court reversed the St. Louis County murder conviction of Ellen Reasonover and ordered her freed from prison in 1999, said Missouri Supreme Court spokesman Beth Riggert.
Some national television shows searched for the names of the original jurors to interview them about their reaction to the appellate ruling, she said.
Because the court file had been sealed, the juror list was not made public. However, the realization that jurors could be contacted led a St. Louis County court official to write to the Supreme Court, expressing concerns about jurors' names being made public.
At the meeting with the court in December, news media representatives told the judges the court had overreacted. They argued the secrecy rule violated U.S. Supreme Court rules requiring courts to act in public.
"Courts are supposed to act in the open," said Joe Martineau, an attorney for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "They're not supposed to dispense secret justice. And jurors are supposed to be accountable."
Martineau said, "Obviously, there are instances when it's appropriate to keep names secret, such as gangland trials and trials of drug kingpins."
But when it comes to other cases, Martineau asked, "What's inappropriate about a reporter calling a juror to find out why a decision was made? The juror doesn't have to talk to us."
In its new rule, the state Supreme Court reiterated that jury questionnaires shall not be made public, other than to the parties involved, unless there's a showing of good cause.
The identities of those who sit on grand juries are not public. However, the identities of jurors in civil cases routinely are public. The rule does not change those practices. It also does not affect any information heard in open court.
"This new order is a more balanced approach," said Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association. "Jury lists are presumed to be open to the public. But a judge can close them if there is a compelling reason. That's a good balance."
Meanwhile in Ohio, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Dec. 24 that prospective jurors may ask a judge to withhold personal information outlined in juror questionnaires.
While juror questionnaires in Ohio traditionally are available to the public and news media, a juror may ask a judge to hold a hearing on the issue of keeping private certain personal information, the court ruled.
"Prospective jurors who disclosed sensitive information are entitled to an in-camera (private) hearing before such information is released," Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer wrote in a 22-page opinion.
Moyer said trial judges shouldn't promise confidentiality to prospective jurors required to fill out questionnaires on their background, personal life and familiarity with a criminal case.
Prospective jurors must be told that any information they disclose on the questionnaire "may be subject to public disclosure," Moyer said.
A juror concerned about such disclosure may request a hearing, the court said.
Personal identification information, such as Social Security, driver's license and telephone numbers, aren't related to juror impartiality and may be withheld from disclosure, the court said.
"Such information does nothing to further the objectives underlying the presumption of openness namely, the enhancement and appearance of basic fairness in the criminal trial," Moyer wrote.
The ruling came in a case in which the Akron Beacon Journal had requested juror questionnaires in the October 2000 trial of Denny Ross, charged with the 1999 rape and murder of Hannah Hill, 18, of Akron.
The trial judge denied the request and sealed the names and questionnaires. Juror privacy should be protected because of the "extraordinary level of pretrial publicity," the trial judge said.
A mistrial was declared in the Ross case after the jury foreman told the judge that a juror supported the verdict only because he was in a hurry to leave.
The newspaper then asked the 9th Ohio District Court of Appeals to order the release of juror names and questionnaires.
The court ruled in August 2001 that the newspaper could have the questionnaires but could not obtain the names until the case was closed. Summit County prosecutors appealed that ruling.
The state Supreme Court ruled that the Ross trial juror questionnaires and names and addresses of jurors should be released if no overriding reason is found to keep them secret.
Karen Lefton, attorney for the Beacon Journal, said the ruling "will make it much easier for journalists and the public to get this information."
Lefton also said the ruling was important because "until now there hasn't really been any direction for a trial court of how to handle these questionnaires."
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