US judge says he can't afford to sequester jurors in gang case, cites 'devastating mandatory cuts'

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A federal judge in New York has refused to sequester jurors in the murder and racketeering trial of four alleged gang members, citing the cost of the move at a time the judiciary is facing budget cuts.

U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. said in an opinion (PDF) issued last Wednesday that he would not order sequestration because “the court must also be mindful of today’s economic climate.” He did agree to shield the identities of the jurors, however. The New York Times reports on his decision.

Johnson said in his opinion that the government had met its burden of showing that the jury needs protection. Two of the defendants have a history of obstructing justice, Johnson said, including alleged gang leader Laron Spicer, who was previously convicted of witness tampering.

Prosecutors say the conviction was based on Spicer’s threat to a police officer in a courthouse hallway, the Times says. The officer asked whether Spicer was going to kill him, according to the motion by prosecutors, and Spicer replied, “I’ll have someone else do it for me.”

Though prosecutors carried their burden, Johnson said, sequestering a jury is too costly, given the impact of budget cuts. “Because of the toxic atmosphere on Capitol Hill, Congress and the administration have been unable or unwilling to produce a budget,” he wrote. “As a result, on March 1, 2013, sequestration went into effect. Sequestration to some means mandatory budget cuts. Sequestration to the judiciary means more. It means unrelenting, unforgiving pain.”

Johnson goes on to compare the judiciary’s $7 billion budget to the total federal budget (the judiciary gets less than .02 percent of the total, he says) and the cost of the Iraq war (which cost $720 million a day, he writes). “The war in Iraq has cost the United States more in 10 days than we spend in an entire year to fund the third branch of government,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the cost of sequestering a jury is “not insubstantial”; in two recent cases involving single defendants the cost of each was between $3 million and $4 million. “Procedures, such as partial sequestration of jurors, have fallen victim to the devastating mandatory cuts,” he wrote.

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