PITTSBURGH — A divided federal appeals court has rejected the use of anonymous jurors in a coroner's trial, calling their identification a "well-established part of American judicial tradition."
The 118-page majority ruling in U.S. v. Wecht overturned a federal judge's initial plan to keep the jurors' names from the public in the fraud trial earlier this year of former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab had proposed the plan to prevent news agencies from interviewing the families or friends of prospective jurors. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with news organizations and Wecht, blocked Schwab's plan in a brief order issued in January, before trial.
Despite the order, the judge only allowed the names of the seated jurors to be read once in open court, and later issued a list of all prospective jurors, without distinguishing who had been chosen.
Two of the 3rd Circuit panel’s three judges noted in the Aug. 1 ruling that nearly all defendants have friends and enemies, so the majority said Schwab's reasoning "would justify anonymity in virtually every jury trial, whether or not it attracts media attention."
"Of course, in a given case, a risk of jury tampering or excessive media harassment may exist," Judges D. Brooks Smith wrote for the 2-1 majority. "But we are satisfied that district judges are well-positioned to address these risks on a case-by-case basis, and in such cases, to make particularized findings on the record."
The ruling came just days before the 3rd Circuit was scheduled to hear arguments in Wecht's appeal. His trial ended in a hung jury in April, and his lawyers hope to avert a new trial on double-jeopardy grounds. Arguments on that issue were scheduled for today.
3rd Circuit Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen dissented from the Aug. 1 ruling, saying the decision would cause problems at the district level.
"It amounts to impermissible micromanagement of procedures and decisions that are properly delegated to the discretion of district judges," Van Antwerpen wrote.
Wecht is accused of using his former county office staff to do work that benefited his lucrative private practice.
Lawyer David J. Bird, who represents the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, called the Aug. 1 opinion important.
The decision "should create a precedent that makes it clear that in most circumstances the use of a truly anonymous jury will not be proper," Bird said.