The pros and cons of releasing juror names and information

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Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner in 2010.
Bob Collins | MPR News 2010

On Monday, the names of the 12 jurors and alternates who sat in the courtroom during the Derek Chauvin trial were released to the public. Judge Peter Cahill, who oversaw the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer, ordered the names be released along with the written questionnaires of all 109 potential jurors who were formally evaluated.

In April of this year, the jury deliberated for ten hours after hearing several weeks of testimony. Ultimately, the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd. Chauvin was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison.

Jurors names are not always released to the public, but they often are. Prosecutors had asked Judge Cahill to reject a request by a coalition of media outlets to unseal the names of the jurors.

Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner spoke with Cathy Wurzer about the implications of this move.

Gaertner said the presumption is that juror identity is public. But sometimes judges opt for a middle ground. They can make them public, but not for some time.

In some cases, she said, jurors might assume their names won’t be public. Defense attorneys, especially in a high profile case, might be “concerned that a jury might feel an obligation to convict a defendant of something more serious,” because they “don’t want to go to the local coffee shop and face angry neighbors.”

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A legitimate concern, the former county prosecutor said, is about upcoming trials of the other three defendants in this same case involving the killing of George Floyd. Those trials will be based on essentially the same information, she said, which affects every aspect of every decision that’s made. We always “need to have a fair trial,” she concluded.

“With all respect to Judge Cahill,” she added that she has a “very negative reaction to releasing prospective juror information.” Gaertner said it’s important to give jurors space to talk about biases, what they heard about the case, how they could be fair and share personal experiences they have with crime — particularly domestic violence or sexual violence.

Prospective jurors, she says, need to be able to honestly share their experiences and their thoughts in the questionnaire process. “If that becomes public fodder. it really unnerves me.”

It could damage the judicial system, she said.

Gaertner went on to say that prospective jurors have a “natural hesitation to take on this important role. It’s a hard role to sit in judgment of other citizens. A hard job. Add to that, the private information you shared would be out in cyberspace. It would give a juror pause.”

Gaertner said, thought, that it is important for the public to know who the jurors are.

“If not, you have essentially a ‘star chamber.’”

She said it’s important that jurors identities be a matter of public information. Then, it’s up to jurors to make individual decisions whether they want to talk to the media. She added that jurors “can use the opportunity to educate the public about the role of a jury and how they made decisions. It raises confidence in the criminal justice system. But it’s their choice.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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