Public interest outweighs juror privacy, high court rules
SOUTH CAROLINA–The Supreme Court of South Carolina in Columbia reversed in early March a lower court decision sealing transcripts and documents related to a criminal defendant’s challenge to his conviction, holding that the public’s right of access outweighed the jurors’ privacy interests.
The Court recognized that jurors may have compelling privacy interests warranting closure and sealing in certain cases, but concluded that in this case redaction of the names and identifying information would adequately protect their privacy.
The Greenville News and The Anderson Independent-Mail challenged the sealings in the action filed by William Bell, who was sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of a school principal. Bell alleged that his trial was tainted by juror misconduct.
Judge Thomas Ervin ordered depositions of the jurors in August 1994, assuring them that their testimony would remain confidential. On consent of the parties, Ervin sealed the record, including the sealing order. After conducting a closed hearing in January 1996, Judge Alex Macauley concluded that Bell’s allegations of juror bias and extraneous influences were not supported by the evidence.
The newspapers sought access to a transcript of the January hearing and the record, alternatively suggesting that the court redact the documents prior to public inspection. Macaulay rejected the state’s offer to release redacted documents, holding that redaction would not adequately protect the jurors’ privacy.
The Supreme Court reversed Macauley, opining that court proceedings operate under a “presumption of openness.” The court relied on a 1994 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) to find that the presumption applies to post-trial proceedings addressing alleged juror misconduct. (Ex Parte: The Greenville News; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Columbia)