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Newspaper can't see potential jurors' answers

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   RHODE ISLAND   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Oct. 17, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   RHODE ISLAND   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Oct. 17, 2006

Newspaper can’t see potential jurors’ answers

  • A judge makes public a blank questionnaire in a manslaughter case stemming from a nightclub fire but won’t release the forms completed by prospective jurors.

Oct. 17, 2006  ·   A Rhode Island judge last week denied a newspaper’s request to see questionnaires completed by prospective jurors in a high-profile manslaughter case, despite the fact that the defendant’s plea ended the case before a jury was ever selected.

Judge Francis J. Darigan Jr. did agree to make public a blank copy of the questionnaire given to potential jurors in the case of Michael Derderian, the co-owner of a nightclub that burned to the ground during a 2003 rock concert, killing 100 people. But he would not release the forms completed by more than 400 potential jurors in the case, citing the impact such a decision could have on future trials.

Shortly after the jurors filled out the questionnaires in early September, The Providence Journal petitioned the judge for copies of the forms. On Sept. 29, Derderian and his brother, Jeffrey, the club’s other owner, pleaded no contest to 100 counts of manslaughter before lawyers verbally questioned any of the jurors.

The Journal continued to seek access to the questionnaires to see if the answers shed any light on the Derderians’ pleas, said Joseph Cavanagh, an attorney for the Journal.

“If the answers showed certain attitudes or bias toward guilt or innocence,” Cavanagh said, “we thought it might have impacted” the decision to plea.

In its argument to the court, the Journal cited a 1984 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the jury selection process — known as voir dire — is presumed to be open to the public. Because the defendant already had been sentenced, the newspaper argued that releasing the forms would not endanger his right to a fair trial.

State Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s office, however, said releasing the documents would deter jurors in future trials from responding candidly to questions.

The judge agreed. “This failure to answer fully and honestly would critically undermine counsels’ ability in later cases to select an unbiased jury, as mandated by the Sixth Amendment,” Darigan wrote.

Darigan also stated that because the trial was over, “the release of the filled-in questionnaires serves no legitimate purpose under the First Amendment except to engage in rank speculation or to satisfy idle curiosity about what jurors, if any, may have been seated in this case or what role, if any, the jury questionnaires may have had in the Defendants’ motives to change their plea.”

Cavanagh said the judge “short-shrifted” the First Amendment in the balancing test. He said the newspaper is considering whether to appeal the decision.

(Rhode Island v. Michael Derderian; Media Counsel: Joseph Cavanagh, Providence, R.I.)RG

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