New Jersey court withholds juror names in murder trial

Jamie Schuman | Secret Courts | Feature | October 21, 2011

Deviating from normal procedure, a New Jersey federal court is not publicizing names and other personal information of jurors in a controversial murder trial that began this week.

In most criminal trials, the names and occupations of jurors are public. But in the trial of Paul Bergrin, a former defense lawyer who is charged with coordinating the 2004 murder of a confidential witness in a federal drug case against one of his clients, the judge veered from this practice after prosecutors argued that revealing jurors’ names could pose a safety risk.

U.S. District Judge William Martini decided at an August hearing to withhold jurors’ names while lawyers selected whom to empanel and did not say how long that information would remain secret, according to a Reuters report.

Federal courts normally only allow anonymous juries in exceptional cases, such as when revealing personal information could endanger jurors. Factors courts consider include whether the defendant is involved in organized crime or has previously attempted to interfere with the judicial process, and whether publicity could expose jurors to intimidation.

“It is something that goes against the presumption of openness, but sometimes there is a need for individual safety that must trump transparency,” Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts told the wire service.

The Bergrin trial has received a lot of news coverage, but the court's decision to withhold juror names may make it difficult for reporters to write post-verdict analytical pieces and jury profiles, said Kathleen Hirce, a New Jersey-based media attorney at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen, & Carvelli. Though New Jersey case law has a strong emphasis on openness, First Amendment rights can face an "uphill battle" when there are significant safety concerns, Hirce said.

When indicting Bergrin on 33 counts, including the murder charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New Jersey in 2009 called him “no different than a street gangster,” Thomson Reuters reported. Bergrin was a federal prosecutor before becoming a defense lawyer.

Defense lawyers often object that anonymous juries may bias the people charged with deciding the fate of their clients. If jurors learn that they could be at risk, they might think the defendant is dangerous, or they may try to learn background about the case outside of the courtroom, Reuters reported.

Another case in which a court withheld jury information is that of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, who in 1998 pleaded guilty to bombings that killed three people and injured 23. Media organizations challenged the secrecy order in that case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) decided to keep juror information confidential because people involved in the case had been harassed. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging that the jurors’ names be released in that case.