An Ohio judge presiding over the murder trial of an alleged serial killer on Wednesday reduced the restrictions he had previously placed on the media's reporting of the jury selection process.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Dick Ambrose’s earlier order prohibited media from quoting prospective jurors or in any way identifying the jurors. The order also prohibited publication of juror’s names, employment, occupation and places of residence. Ambrose is presiding over the trial of Anthony Sowell, who is accused of murdering 11 women in Cleveland. He faces the death penalty if convicted.
Media will still be prohibited from reporting juror’s names or addresses, according to David Marburger, an attorney who represented the Plain Dealer Publishing Company and Scripps Media Inc., which owns Cleveland television station WEWS. The media organizations are considering challenging those restrictions as well, he said.
“The issue here is not that the [media organizations] are hell bent on reporting names and addresses of jurors to the public," Marburger said. "What they’re hell bent on doing is making that judgment themselves, not having the court dictate to them how they must exercise their editorial discretion.”
On Tuesday, after the judge issued his order prohibiting the press from publishing jury information, Marburger filed a motion to vacate the order. He argued in a court filing that prior restraints on speech and publishing, such as the judge’s order in this case, are “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment Rights,” quoting the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Nebraska Press Ass’n v. Stuart.
“Neither the Ohio Supreme Court nor the United States Supreme Court has ever upheld a prior restraint of the press on its merits,” Marburger's filing said. “[The order] challenged here is a prior restraint and, however well-intentioned, is unconstitutional on its face. The Court should vacate it immediately.”
The judge did not state his reasons for the restrictions in the order. However, in a chambers conference before today’s hearing on the order, Ambrose said his experience with jurors has been that they are reticent in criminal cases to serve as jurors or be candid about their views if other people will know what they said and who they are, Marburger said.
On Wednesday, Ambrose also released transcripts from a two-week process in which lawyers questioned prospective jurors behind closed doors on their views on the death penalty. The rest of the voir dire jury selection process is being held in open court.
“Suppose I’m sitting there in open court, and I’m watching the voir dire, and I see that my neighbor is in the [group of potential jurors]," Marburger said. "Can’t I tell my kids that Mr. Johnson is on that Anthony Sowell jury? Well, what if a perspective juror says something really outrageous or bizarre or potentially newsworthy? Why couldn’t the press tell the public about it if it happened in open court and everybody else witnessed it?”