Anonymous juries: a troubling development

Written by Ethan Paul, undergraduate student at the Pennsylvania State University

Earlier this month, New York City attorney Bobbi C. Sternheim filed court papers on behalf of her client, Minh Quang Pham, urging the judge to reject the government’s demands for an anonymous jury. Pham, who was extradited to the U.S. from London in March, faces charges of providing material support to al-Qaida by assisting in the editing and distribution of propaganda used by al-Qaida to recruit disenchanted individuals from western cultures. As Yahoo News reported:

In opposing an anonymous jury for Pham’s Feb. 1 trial, Sternheim said anonymity impairs a defendant’s presumption of innocence, threatens judicial integrity and disrupts the ability of lawyers to investigate jurors for bias. She said anonymity signals jurors that the defendant is “very dangerous.”

Leroy “Nicky” Barnes on the cover of New York Times Magazine, 1977

Anonymous juries, relative to the history of jurisprudence, are a fairly recent phenomena. The term refers to jurors whose identities are kept completely secret from both the public and the defendant. Anonymity has been invoked in cases where a substantial danger could potentially fall upon the individual jury member were she to decide her vote in a particular way. For instance, an anonymous jury was formed in the 1977 trial of drug kingpin Leroy Barnes, on the grounds of New York City’s extensive history of jury and witness tampering in large-scale New York drug prosecutions. The trial court assigned to the case concluded that “all safety measures possible should be taken for the protection of prospective jurors, including complete anonymity, namely, no disclosure of name or address.”

Case such as this, in which the safety of jurors’ lives may be in question, merit consideration of anonymity. Nevertheless, as reported by the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press,”most federal and state appellate courts which have addressed this issue have recognized a qualified First Amendment right to juror names and addresses.” Indeed, in the case of U.S. v Ross, The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta called the use of anonymous juries:

“a drastic measure, one which should be undertaken only in limited and carefully delineated circumstances.”

In a political climate rife with fear, the potential rise in anonymous juries is troubling. Granting anonymity, as Sternheim implied, can muddle the concept of a jury of peers and can create bias against defendants. For what it’s worth, legal scholarship on the question remains divided. Some writers have argued for the routine use of anonymous juries, or even claimed that no First Amendment right exists to an identified jury. Others have warned that unregulated uses of anonymous undermines the right of the accused.

Pham, 32, plead guilty to charges of providing material support to terrorists and faces at least 30-years in federal prison

These warnings, it appears, have gone largely unheard: according to Sternheim, “What should be a last resort is now a standard tactical weapon used by the prosecution.” Since the Yahoo News article was published, Pham subsequently pled guilty prior to trial, and faces a minimum of 30 years in federal prison. He is to be sentenced on April 14th.

This entry was posted in Jury structure and reform, Public/media views of juries, Social/political impact of juries. Bookmark the permalink.

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