A Pennsylvania judge intentionally withheld the date of a jury selection that occurred Tuesday in a high-profile case to prevent a newspaper from doing its usual pre-trial coverage, and concerned parties remain stunned and unsure of how to respond in this rare case.
“It’s not acceptable,” said Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. “There are constitutional guarantees against closed proceedings and the court, in this case, ignored them and made a decision based on its own judgment. That’s extraordinarily problematic. What if this happens every day across the state?”
Late Tuesday, reporters for the York Daily Record/York Sunday News found out that a jury was seated earlier that day for the upcoming murder trials of Michael and Nanette Craver, a York couple accused of killing their 7-year-old adopted Russian son in 2009.
The date and time of the jury selection was kept off the court schedule as well as the court files on the case. The jury selection process, known as "voir dire," is traditionally open to the public.
The trial has garnered international attention, with Russian officials attending preliminary hearings. The Cravers were arrested around the time that Russian officials’ decided to briefly halt U.S. adoptions of Russian children due to reports of abuse and more by adoptive parents.
York County Judge John S. Kennedy said defense and prosecution attorneys agreed to keep the dates of the jury selection and the trial off the public record during a pre-trial meeting a few months ago. Their concern stemmed from the amount of media attention surrounding the case. Kennedy said that in high-profile trials like the Cravers, the newspaper traditionally would have a front page story as well as a lengthy inside feature advancing the case right before jury selection.
“We were concerned if that happened before the jury came in that we would have a very hard time getting a fair and impartial jury from the citizens of our community,” Kennedy said Thursday.
The veteran judge also denied that he kept the jury selection process a “secret.”
“The case did not appear on the docket, but it was open to the public,” he said. “So it really wasn’t held in ‘secret.’”
Kennedy did not inform the court’s clerks about the jury selection, which is why it was not on the docket. “I just took them out of the loop,” he said. Kennedy then asked the court administrator to issue the jury summonses.
“What’s supposed to happen? Are they supposed to guess?” Melewsky said in response to Kennedy’s statement that the jury selection was not a secret. “It’s incumbent upon the court to give the public accurate and timely information regarding court proceedings and does so in virtually every case. Was the door locked? No. But did anyone know what was happening? No.”
Scott Fisher, opinion editor for the Daily Record/Sunday News said the editorial board is concerned that Kennedy’s intentional withholding will become standard practice. “We don’t always cover jury selection, but in cases like this our reporter probably would have attended the hearing,” he said. “I think it lends an accountability to the process.”
But Fisher said that while the move was unusual, he wasn’t really sure if the judge broke any laws. He also wasn’t sure as to what the newspaper would do in response — if anything.
At the very least, Kennedy’s move is “inappropriate,” according to Melewsky. “I can’t say if this is illegal, but it’s not held in the public interest.”
Kennedy maintains that if he did not intentionally keep the press in the dark regarding jury selection, he would not have been able to get a jury seated. Kennedy said that he consulted with fellow judges and they agreed that keeping the press out was necessary.
Kennedy said he contemplated changing the trial’s venue because of the pre-trial media attention the case was receiving, but ultimately the move would be costly and he wanted “local citizens to try local cases.”
Melewsky said part of the problem is Kennedy never issued a court order to keep the press out, so there is nothing to challenge.
“It’s extraordinary,” she said. “I’ve never heard of it before and I hope to never hear of it again.”