Privacy concerns alone not enough to deny access to juror names
MICHIGAN–In early February, the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing unanimously held that a trial court’s order denying The Detroit Free Press’ motion for the release of jurors’ names and addresses in the trial of a convicted serial rapist should be reconsidered by the trial court, noting that generalized privacy interests alone cannot justify secrecy.
Between September 1992 and May 1994, an unknown assailant viciously beat and raped four Ann Arbor women. One died from the beating. The media widely reported these crimes, referring to the unknown assailant as the “Ann Arbor serial rapist.” The rapist remained at large until December 1994, when Ervin Dewain Mitchell was arrested following a fifth attack. Mitchell was ultimately charged with felony murder and three counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct.
The appeals court found that the press has a qualified right of access to names and addresses of jurors post-verdict, although trial courts can impose appropriate restrictions on the manner and time of disclosure “where safety concerns of jurors are found to be legitimate concerns.”
The court held that although in the vast majority of trials there are no safety implications for jurors, a risk or at least a fear of violent retaliation for an unwelcome verdict exists in exceptional cases involving organized crime or violent offenders.
Ultimately, the high court held that the trial court cannot deny media access to jurors’ names and addresses without first making a determination that concerns for jurors’ safety are legitimate and reasonable. In the Mitchell case, the high court said it could not tell from the record if the trial court did so, and remanded the case to the trial court for specific findings regarding juror safety.
Mitchell’s two-week trial took place in May and June 1995. According to the trial court, the trial was “the most highly publicized case this County has had in decades.” Because of the high profile nature of the case, the trial court took measures to protect the jurors’ identities. Jurors were identified only by number, were sequestered during trial and the media was barred from showing the jurors’ faces. The court also prohibited “any person from disseminating to the public the names or addresses of the jurors or prospective jurors” and declared that “any attempt by anyone to communicate with a member of the jury panel is subject to criminal contempt of court.”
Before the jury reached a verdict, the Free Press petitioned the trial court to release the jurors’ names and addresses after the verdict. The majority of the jurors opposed the request, stating concerns about family privacy and safety. The trial court denied the request for publication of juror names and addresses, stating, “Those who wish to discuss their service with the media are free to volunteer to do so. This Court will not order this jury to be subjected to further intrusions into their private lives.” Although the trial court scheduled a post-verdict news conference for jurors to attend at their option, none chose to do so. (Michigan v. Mitchell; Media Counsel: Herschel P. Fink, Detroit)