Jurors' privacy, public's rights to know collide

Posted Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011

Associated Press

CHICAGO — When anonymous jurors begin hearing the perjury trial of retired baseball slugger Barry Bonds this week, they can credit their privacy in part to a case involving another famous defendant, but one where the focus is on alleged political corruption rather than steroids: Illinois' impeached former governor, Rod Blagojevich.

In the Bonds case, Judge Susan Illston alluded to the media crush surrounding Blagojevich's trial when she ruled that she would keep the jurors' names secret until after their verdict on whether the homerun king lied to a grand jury about taking performance-enhancing drugs. Illston, in San Francisco, cited the decision by federal Judge James Zagel in Chicago last year to withhold the names of the Blagojevich jurors to protect them from media "harassment."

The decisions rekindle a dilemma that nags high-profile cases in an era of ever-intensifying media competition: How should judges balance jurors' right to privacy with the public's right to know more about those who sit in judgment in such closely watched trials?

On one side are those who say judges must shield juries from media excesses to ensure that evidence is assessed without bias, distraction or fear of publicity. Others argue the balance has shifted too far in jurors' favor, eroding a core American principle of making sure that trials are as open as possible.

"The founding fathers would have frowned at the idea of keeping jurors' names secret," said James Oldham, a law history professor at Georgetown University. "And they would have been completely astonished at the intensity of the issue today."

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