Casey Anthony case casts harsh light on jurors' lack of privacy
A judge's decision to publicly release the names of the jurors in the Casey Anthony case -- creating at least the potential for an outraged public to vent their displeasure -- could have repercussions nationwide, a law professor said Tuesday.
Prospective jurors could balk at serving either in high-profile cases or in cases involving the criminal underworld, such as a case related to the mob or violent gangs, said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, an associate professor at University of Dayton's School of Law. And judges could find themselves faced with additional requests to seat an anonymous jury (a rarity in the legal system) to help allay fears of reprisals.
"You can see a situation where there will be some pushback because of this," Hoffmeister, who specializes in jury issues, told The Times. "You can see where a juror would say, 'I don't want anything to do with this, I saw what happened [in the Casey Anthony case]. I don't want that invasion of privacy.'"
That's not to say jurors in high-profile cases should be afraid.
Hoffmeister notes that reprisals against jurors is largely the stuff of Hollywood screenplays and prime-time procedurals. "It just doesn't happen," Hoffmeister said. "Rarely, if ever, are jurors actually harmed. When people talk about someone going after jurors, I always say, 'Give me one example.'"
In the Anthony case, Superior Court Judge Belvin Perry delayed the release of the jurors' names for several months after Anthony's acquittal in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Public interest in the case, and displeasure over the verdict, were so high that the judge had said he wanted a "cooling-off" period before making the jurors' names public.
Perhaps it was to be expected. Intense media scrutiny of high-profile cases and an insatiable 24-hour news cycle have thrust jurors into the public eye like never before. And now, tracking a juror to his or her front door now can be as easy as reaching for a smart phone.
"It's one of those double-edged swords of the digital age," Hoffmeister said. "You can cover [a trial] on TV, print, online, social media, and it all creates more interest and a demand for more information. At what point is it too much information?"
He added: "It used to be that if you wanted to track people down, you had to hire a private investigator. Now you Google them."
Although jurors may not like it, making their identities known is a cornerstone of the legal system, Hoffmeister said. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant a right to trial by a fair and impartial jury. And one way to achieve that is to make sure that the jurors are known, so that any potential conflicts of interest or inherent biases will be ferreted out by either the prosecution, the defense or, in some cases, the media.
Juror privacy guidelines can vary from state to state and judge to judge. California's state court website notes that after a trial is over, the media or interested parties may reach out to jurors, and urges jurors to call the judge if they feel harassed.
Hoffmeister said that he personally does not feel the need for anonymous juries except in extreme cases, such as in some terrorism or organized-crime trials. Given the unlikelihood of any harm coming to a juror, he said, it's more important to keep court proceedings transparent.
Still, Hoffmeister said, "I think you will see courts go more and more toward the position that the names are not released."
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Photo: The media room in the wake of the Casey Anthony acquittal. Jurors declined at that time to talk to the media. Credit: Associated Press