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Furor Over Presentence Story About Jurors

Posted Sep 14, 2007 12:00 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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An unusual front-page newspaper article about jurors selected, after four months of questioning, to determine the sentence in a high-profile death-penalty case has caused a furor.

The prosecutor, defense counsel, at least some jurors, and journalism experts are among those questioning the Connecticut Post's judgment in printing the article, according to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism think tank.

The Sunday article (PDF), which is linked by the Poynter Institute site, names jurors and details where they live and work. After Judge Robert Devlin Jr. told them of the article, one juror and one alternate, concerned about their safety, asked to be excused. Devlin agreed, but denied a mistrial request, the Post reported Monday.

A jury was selected only to sentence defendant Russell Peeler Jr. because a previous jury convicted him but deadlocked on the penalty.

The Sunday article ran after the jury was seated but before the Bridgeport, Conn., case—in which an 8-year-old boy and his mother were murdered as the boy about to testify in a case over the killing of his mother's boyfriend—was concluded. Public outrage over the murders resulted in state legislation to better protect witnesses, another Post article notes.

Juror identities generally are public, but increasingly courts allow anonymity, Tompkins writes. In an ongoing trial of reputed Chicago organized crime family members, for instance, juror names have been kept secret, as an ABAJournal.com post notes.

Erskine McIntosh, who represents Peeler, was furious over the Sunday article, the newspaper reports. "I can barely put into words my disgust with the Connecticut Post," he said. "They have precluded Mr. Peeler from getting a fair trial by this journalistic misconduct."

However, reporter MariAn Gail Brown, who is a lawyer, and newspaper editor James H. Smith defended the article to Tompkins.

"In nearly 40 years as a reporter and editor I have always named jurors," writes Smith in an e-mail. "The Sixth Amendment calls for 'a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.' How can you have a public trial with a secret jury? How do you know if the jury is impartial if you don't know who they are?"

Brown, who spent weeks covering jury selection, says the two months jurors are expected to serve was much more of a concern to them than personal safety or privacy.

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