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Juror speaks out after judge lifts gag order

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FIFTH CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Dec.

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FIFTH CIRCUIT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Dec. 7, 2006

Juror speaks out after judge lifts gag order

  • A juror contacted the Houston Chronicle after the newspaper petitioned a judge to rescind a gag order in the trial of a man convicted for his role in a failed smuggling attempt that left 19 immigrants dead.

Dec. 7, 2006  ·   A juror in the first trial of a man charged in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants gave his reasons for trying to spare the man from a death sentence in a Houston Chronicle article published this week, an interview made possible by the recent lifting of a verbal gag order on jurors.

Though Tyrone Williams’ first trial ended in March 2005 with an incomplete verdict, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal only recently modified a verbal gag order imposed on jurors by another federal judge, following a court motion by the Chronicle to rescind the order.

Rosenthal refused, however, to release the jurors’ names, citing juror confidentiality rules in the federal court district encompassing Houston.

Rosenthal presided over the second trial of Williams, one of 14 people charged in a failed smuggling attempt that left 19 people dead in the back of a tractor trailer in 2003. Jurors in that trial on Monday found Williams guilty of 58 counts, including charges of transporting resulting in death. He now faces the death penalty.

During the first trial, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore imposed a written gag order on all participants in the trial, including jurors.

In March 2005, the jury deadlocked on 20 counts and found Williams guilty of 38 counts. But because they could not agree on how to answer questions regarding Williams’ degree of culpability, an appeals court later threw out the guilty verdicts.

At the time of the first verdict, Gilmore ordered jurors: “Do not discuss this case with anybody in the media. If anybody calls you, writes you, tries to stop you as you are leaving, tell them I have ordered you not to discuss this case.”

Jurors left the courtroom on a freight elevator, bypassing the media, said Harvey Rice, the Chronicle federal courts reporter who covered the trial.

Attorneys for the Chronicle wrote Gilmore a letter asking her to lift the order, but she never responded, Rice said. Gilmore lifted the written gag order in May, before the case was transferred to Rosenthal, but never addressed the verbal gag order.

The Chronicle filed court papers in October asking the new judge to lift Gilmore’s verbal gag order and provide a list of jurors to the newspaper, saying reporters had been prevented from interviewing them because the gag order was unconstitutionally overbroad.

Rosenthal denied the request for juror information on Oct. 30 but modified the gag order, saying jurors were free to contact the newspaper and discuss their “general reactions,” though they were barred from talking about “debates and discussions that took place in the jury room.”

After Rice mentioned the judge’s decision in an article, a juror from the first trial contacted him. The juror, Horace Rains, said he held out because he felt others shared responsibility for the immigrants’ deaths, according to the article that appeared Monday.

The newspaper also had to call an attorney after a judge’s staffer stalled in providing a copy of the detailed verdict form after the second Williams jury reached its verdict. Shortly after the attorney paid a visit to the courthouse, the form appeared on the federal court Web site.

“I thought it was important not to let them deny us those things because it sets a precedent,” Rice said. “You can’t let them do that.”

(United States v. Williams, Media Counsel: Joseph R. Larsen, Ogden, Gibson, Broocks & Longoria LLP, Houston)RG

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