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Should Courts in High-Profile Trials Rethink ‘Anonymous Juries’?

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Concealing the identity of jurors may sometimes be required to protect their safety, but anonymous juries are not always the best guarantee that justice will be served, according to a paper published in the Cornell Law Review.

So-called “anonymous jury trials” have been increasingly empaneled since their inception in 1977 for high-profile trials involving terrorism, police killings and organized crime—most recently in the current Brooklyn, N.Y., federal trial of reputed Mexican crime kingpin El Chapo where, in addition to high security protection, jurors’ names have been concealed to ensure their safety.

But according to Leonardo Mangat, a professor at Cornell University Law School, they often have “unintended” impacts on trial outcomes—and judges should weigh carefully decisions about whether and when to grant jurors anonymity.

Mangat noted that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a public trial by a jury of heir peers to criminal defendants, but there are currently no legal precedents for using it to support a defendant’s right to have the identities of jurors made public.

“Although the Supreme Court has yet to directly address anonymous juries, courts should be exceedingly mindful about the risk [to] the defendant’s presumption of innocence,” Mangat wrote.

Meanwhile, even in cases where there are legitimate reasons for juror anonymity, juries should be required to provide an explanation for their final decisions, wrote Mangat. Such “reasoned verdicts” can ensure that the verdicts of anonymous juries are fully understood by the community, he added.

The increased use of anonymous juries raises ethical questions.

Among the concerns of using anonymous jurors are the impact on the presumption of innocence, the public’s right to an open trial, and the loss of “civic engagement,” under which a defendant is judged transparently and openly by a jury of his or her peers, Mangat wrote.

He added there are also concerns about the impact of anonymity on jury verdicts.

Citing a “mock jury experiment” which found that anonymous jurors returned approximately 15 percent more guilty verdicts than their non-anonymous counterparts.

According to Mangat, jury trials are crucial to the values embedded in the U.S. constitution—and also to the public confidence in a fair trial.

Juries “infuse a trial with community values,” he wrote, adding that “they signal legitimacy toward society, and their judgments prompt civic and political debate.”

However, juror anonymity can disrupt those values, Mangat cautioned.

Mangat says his research findings suggest that anonymous juries have more of an impact than traditionally thought.

In addition to employing “reasoned verdicts,” Mangat advises courts to adopt the Seventh Circuit’s test of deciding the level of anonymity required for the specific circumstances of a case.

The Seventh Circuit distinguishes between the need to empanel an anonymous jury, where it is deemed necessary that the defendant knows nothing about the jurors, and a “confidential” jury, where the court finds that the public should not know who the jurors are.

He noted that recently judges have allowed anonymous juries in cases where police officers are on trial for the deaths of civilians, on the grounds that the high-profile nature of these cases requires that jurors be protected from any possible backlash from their decisions.

But applying the Seventh Circuit test would result in a very different decision, Mangat wrote.

“The court would….likely find that an anonymous jury is not warranted because the likelihood of juror harm and resultant harm to the judicial process from the defendant is absent,” he concluded.

Prof. Mangat’s paper can be downloaded here.

Lauren Sonnenberg, a TCR news intern, contributed to this summary. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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