NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MASSACHUSETTS · Secret Courts · April 10, 2007
High court upholds juror secrecy in gang case
April 10, 2007 · The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that a judge could properly bar the release of jurors’ names in a gang-related murder trial out of concern for jurors’ safety.
In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court ruled that Bristol Superior Court Judge Gary A. Nickerson did not err by impounding the names and addresses of jurors in the murder trial of Manuel Silva, who was acquitted of murder in 2005.
“The safety of jurors is crucial to the functioning of the judicial system,” Justice Judith A. Cowin wrote for the court. “While other key participants in a high-profile criminal trial involving dangerous offenders — the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge — have all willingly accepted any attendant publicity and risks, the jurors have not.”
The (New Bedford) Standard-Times newspaper had filed motions to have access to the jury list, arguing that the press has a right to the information under the First Amendment and the common law right of access to judicial records.
The trial judge denied the motion, writing that “a genuine concern for the safety of these jurors bars any release of identifying data.”
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the trial judge and ruled against the press, citing the circumstances it said warranted sealing the names.
According to the opinion, at trial, the prosecution argued that the defendant and another individual were members of a New Bedford street gang and that they killed the victim, a member of a rival gang, by firing multiple rounds at him in his automobile in what the judge termed “an indiscriminate act of gang vengeance.”
One of the prosecution’s main witnesses at trial was the defendant’s girlfriend. Shortly before her testimony, an unknown gunman fired shots at her in her automobile, lodging four bullets in the car but leaving her unharmed.
And two hours after the not guilty verdict was announced, 11 shots were fired at the home of the defendant’s mother.
During the trial, the judge discharged one of the empaneled jurors, a New Bedford resident who worked near where the events took place. According to the trial judge, she “had become so fearful of the circumstances surrounding the case that she could not fairly continue.”
Due to these circumstances, the high court found that the trial judge did not err in refusing to release the jurors’ names.
The high court acknowledged that there is a First Amendment right of access to court proceedings and common law right of access to judicial records.
But the court noted that “this right of access is not absolute, however, and must yield to a trial judge’s decision to impound records for ‘good cause.'”
(Commonwealth v. Silva, Media Counsel: Anthony C. Savastano, New Bedford, Mass.) — CS