Juror Anonymity (kind of) Law

So in addition to being a legislator, I’m also an attorney, and I sometimes represent people charged with crimes, and several of those cases have gone to jury trials (most criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains, but sometimes we can’t reach an agreement, and sometimes the defendant is actually innocent in which case it isn’t appropriate to plead him/her out to anything). In Iowa, when a case is tried to a jury, the attorneys representing each side are given a list of all the potential jurors prior to jury selection, with a lot of basic identifying info, including name, address, age, marital status, employment status and place of employment, highest level of education attained,number and age of children, prior criminal record, and whether the potential juror has been a victim of a crime in the past.

The reason for supplying this info is to help the attorneys pick a “fair and impartial” jury. If someone is employed at the same company as an alleged murder victim, or lives a block away from an alleged burglary victim, or has a child the same age as an alleged sexual assault victim –then maybe the defense attorney might not want that person serving as a juror.  Or if a potential juror is the same age as the defendant, or has been convicted of a similar crime, or lives in the same neighborhood, or has a doctorate degree (conventional wisdom is that more highly educated jurors are more inclined to hold the State to the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard)–then maybe the prosecutor would just as soon  use his/her strikes to avoid having that person on the jury.

And in addition to reviewing the jury pool list personally, a defense attorney always has the defendant go through it as well, because obviously the defendant might recognize names the defense attorney won’t, and thus might know relevant info about the potential juror that the defense attorney doesn’t (e.g., maybe the defendant dated and then dumped a potential juror’s sister back in high school– good to  know). And sometimes we ask a defendant’s family or friends to go through the list as well, for the same reason.

And to be honest, I never really thought twice about this process until recently, when a nice,  normal, intelligent woman (let’s call her Gina) and her husband came to see me to discuss her experience serving as a juror in a high profile murder trial, which attracted large numbers of spectators, including families and friends of both the alleged victim and the defendant. Gina told me how uncomfortable it made her when, during voir dire (which is when the attorneys ask the potential jurors all sorts of questions to decide whether or not they want them as jurors), both attorneys repeatedly referred to her by name, since even though she knew that the defendant  had been provided with her name, she still didn’t like the fact that now everyone in the courtroom knew it, because she’s a private person and she just didn’t feel like it was any of their business. Gina also told me she had been very anxious in the days following the guilty verdict, due to the fact that the defendant had access to all the detailed info on Gina’s address/ employment/family etc., which she and her family feared would make it very easy for someone seeking revenge to find her.

So, Gina and her husband wanted to know if I would be willing to sponsor legislation to require that the names and addresses of potential jurors be redacted from the defendant’s copy of the  jury pool lists, and to forbid the defense attorney from sharing that info with the defendant. And while I totally understood where they were coming from, I had to say no, for various reasons but most importantly because I sincerely believe that this would inevitably result in someone ending up on a jury who is totally unable to be objective and fair to the defendant, and whom would never have been selected had the defendant been aware of  that person’s name or address, because the defendant would have recognized the name as being the boyfriend of the alleged victim’s best friend, or would have recognized the address of being one that the alleged victim used to live at, or whatever.

And of course the potential juror could voluntarily share that type of disqualifying information with the attorneys during jury selection, but (1) often potential jurors aren’t told anything about the trial (other than that it’s criminal or civil) until after they’re selected to serve on the jury, and (2) even if a potential juror recognizes the defendant as, say, the woman charged with killing his first cousin, he might decide to keep that information to himself, in the hopes of making it onto the jury. And even though this might not happen often, our federal and state constitutions guarantee criminal defendants a fair trial, so even just the possibility of it happening is probably enough to render a blanket rule denying criminal defendants access to potential jurors’ names/addresses invalid. (Which is not to say that such a rule could never be appropriate — apparently federal courts occasionally allow it, in certain very limited situations involving gangs and with various safeguards in place).

But WAIT, hold the presses —  Gina and her husband were very gracious when I explained the above to them, and suggested an alternative that I CAN get behind:  legislation requiring that when in open court or the judges’ chambers, all jurors and potential jurors be referred to by number only — e.g., Juror Number One, Juror Number Two, etc.  Obviously, the defendant could still use the jury pool list to match up the face to the number to the name, but …. Gina and her husband both felt that providing jurors with at least the appearance of confidentiality was better than nothing.

Plus in my opinion, it’s just more professional.  Too often the voir dire process seems to devolve into a competition between opposing counsel in which each tries to convince the jury pool that he/she is the more likable person, I suppose on the theory that a  juror might be a little more likely to give his/her “buddy” the benefit of the doubt if it’s a close case. So, (too) often attorneys will make a point of addressing each potential juror by name, multiple times — because hey, we’re friends, and that’s what friends do, right? Which always seems a little condescending to me, if not insulting — and requiring attorneys to refer to potential jurors by number will do away with this kind of silliness (I was going to say “this kind of pandering,” but that’s prob a little harsh).

So, while I’m not comfortable with legislation denying criminal defendants access to the names/addresses of potential jurors, I don’t see any constitutional objections to   legislation requiring that  jurors be addressed by numbers — and if making this small change in the way criminal (and maybe civil?) trials are handled helps make the  sometimes stressful experience of serving as a juror a little less stressful, that sounds like a good exercise of legislative power to me.

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About Representative Mary Wolfe

Part time attorney; full time State Representative for Iowa House District 98 (East Clinton County)
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