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Two courts bar juror contact

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An appellate court affirmed an order barring juror contact in one of the Firestone cases, and a trial judge in…

An appellate court affirmed an order barring juror contact in one of the Firestone cases, and a trial judge in the Andrea Yates case issued a similar order.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 46.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) upheld a trial court order on Sept. 24 that bars the press from directly contacting jurors in a Firestone tire lawsuit.

The case was filed in federal court in Brownsville, Texas, by Dr. Joel Rodriguez, whose wife was seriously injured when the tread on a 15-inch Wilderness AT tire separated, causing her Ford Explorer to flip three times. Because of the injuries she sustained, Marisa Rodriguez is now confined to a wheelchair.

The parties settled the suit on Aug. 24 while the jury was still deliberating.

But U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela issued an order on Aug. 29 prohibiting individuals, including reporters, from contacting any juror in the case without submitting a written application and receiving prior approval from the court.

The Associated Press filed a motion challenging the order, claiming that it was an unconstitutional prior restraint.

Vela issued a second order on Aug. 31 affirming his prior decision. Vela stated that he did not intend to ban communication with jurors. But because jurors had indicated they did not want to discuss the case, the judge said he issued the order to “assure and protect the (jurors’) dignity.”

The Monitor of McAllen, Texas, the Associated Press, and the Houston Chronicle appealed the order.

Vela received one written request to interview jurors. In a letter dated Sept. 4, Alison Gregor of the San Antonio Express-News asked for permission to speak with jurors. Vela sent a letter, also dated Sept. 4, to the jurors, telling each of them that a reporter wished to interview them.

Vela’s letter stated, “whether you may be approached is a matter that I am leaving entirely to you.” At the bottom of the letter was a place for each juror to indicate whether they wished to be interviewed. The court also enclosed a self-addressed, postage-paid envelope.

Seven of nine jurors responded to Vela’s letter. All seven indicated that they did not want to be interviewed.

In Vela’s brief to the 5th Circuit, he explained that he had sent the jurors a letter in response to a media request for interviews and that seven of the nine jurors “unequivocally declined to be interviewed.” He explained that his order balanced the jurors’ privacy interests with the press’ First Amendment rights. He argued that the order was “narrowly tailored” to prevent harassment of jurors, not to bar them from speaking to the media if they desired to do so.

The appellate court affirmed Vela’s order, ruling in a short, three-sentence opinion, that it was “narrowly tailored to avoid abuse of members of the trial jury, all of whom have told the court they do not wish to communicate with the media.” (In re Freedom Texas Newspapers, LLP)

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The trial judge in the Andrea Pia Yates case issued a similar order.

The Texas mother faces murder charges after she called police on June 20 and told them she had drowned her five children. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

A competency hearing was held to determine whether Yates was sufficiently competent to stand trial. The jurors for the competency hearing found Yates competent.

State District Judge Belinda Hill issued an order on Sept. 18, barring the media from interviewing jurors in Yates’ competency hearing. The judge also prohibited the media from publishing any information about the jurors.

In the order, Hill stated that the ban was necessary to protect Yates’ right to a fair trial. Hill was concerned that published statements by jurors from the competency hearing would generate pre-trial publicity that may taint the jury pool for the murder trial.

Lawyers for the Dallas Morning News challenged the order because it prohibited news organizations from ever talking to jurors. After the newspaper’s challenge, Hill changed the order to allow interviews after the final verdict in the murder trial. The trial is set for Jan. 7.

The Houston Chronicle filed a motion to overturn the order, but the judge has not yet taken any action on that request. The local ABC affiliate, KTRK, has also joined in opposition to the court’s order. (State v. Yates) — AG