Anonymous jury in Derek Chauvin trial part of a growing trend that has some legal experts worried

The world learned a number of details about the 12 jurors who pronounced former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd.

They were a racially diverse group – six white Americans, four Black Americans and two mixed-race Americans – that include a dog lover, a sports fan, a single parent, an insurance agent, a nurse and a retiree. But one thing remains a mystery: their names.

Anonymous juries continue to be rare, accounting for only about a dozen a year out of more than 100,000 jury trials nationally. But with the rise of social media and the ease of internet searches, concerns over juror safety could lead to more anonymous juries, a shift that some legal scholars said could jeopardize the transparent nature of the legal system.

“It’s been a slow and constant march toward this, and if in the end no one knows who’s on the jury, people can lose faith in the system and see it as a faceless machine,” said Gregg Leslie, executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University’s law school in Phoenix. “Protecting privacy on a blanket basis will undermine the idea of an open and accountable society.”

Derek Chauvin is led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after he was found guilty of killing George Floyd during an arrest last summer in Minneapolis.

In all court cases, juror information is presumed public unless the government can make a case otherwise. Typically, judges keep jurors anonymous if they might be subject to physical harm, intimidation or undue media attention. Recent decisions to impanel anonymous juries include the upcoming racketeering and sex trafficking trial of singer R. Kelly, as well as the 2019 trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Chauvin’s trial came nearly a year after Floyd’s death, the result of Chauvin kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes during an encounter sparked by an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill. The event sparked nationwide protests and a social justice movement that continues to press for police reform and racial equality.

Given the blazing spotlight on the trial, Judge Peter Cahill decided it was best to keep the names of the potential jurors unknown.

“Strong reasons exist to believe that threats to jurors’ safety and impartiality exist,” Cahill wrote in his decision last fall.

Instead, he revealed the race and age by decade of the jurors and three alternates. Live TV coverage of the trial ensured both the media and the public had streaming access to voir dire, the revelatory process in which attorneys on both sides question potential jurors to determine their suitability to judge the case fairly.

So far, none of the main Chauvin jurors have come forward to discuss the case publicly, and Cahill has said he will keep their names secret at least through the trial this summer of the three other officers who were there when Floyd was killed. On Tuesday, the jury found Chauvin guilty on all three counts: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.

More trials involve unnamed jurors

Leslie, of Arizona State University, said cutbacks in journalism have meant fewer reporters are available to cover trials and potentially file protests about an unidentified jury. He added that the presence of bloggers and others not affiliated with mainstream media outlets increases the chances that juror names “can be published by those with no ethical standards.”

Another question of broad concern for the judicial system is the need for more people of color on juries, which a cloak of anonymity could work against, said James Coleman, director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke University Law School in Durham, North Carolina. Though the judge in the Chauvin trial agreed to provide details on the jurors’ race, that isn’t always the case.

“It’s important for jurors to be identified because the community needs to know who participated in jury deliberations,” Coleman said. “We need to know the experiences of the jurors and whether certain experiences are being excluded.”

Coleman added that in cases where police officer conduct is involved, “you often find some lawyers will either keep Black people off the jury or limit them to one or two people so they are passive when compared to the 10 white jurors.”

Judge Peter Cahill reads a verdict during the trial of Derek Chauvin of the death of George Floyd at the courthouse in Minneapolis on April 20, 2021.

Notably, the Chauvin jury was more racially diverse than both Hennepin County and Minneapolis. A visibly mixed-race jury can send a signal to communities of color that they should not shy away from being jurors, Coleman said.

“To have confidence the trial will be fair, you have to know that the jurors include different kinds of people,” he said.

But does that mean they have to be identified? Some experts argue that the safety provided by anonymity helps to ensure a fair trial, freeing jurors from being fearful that a decision will come back to haunt them.

In a 1998 paper called “The Effects of Juror Anonymity on Jury Verdicts,” psychologists Lynn Hazelwood and John Brigham created an experiment with students that found a higher rate of conviction (70%) with anonymous juries when compared with named juries (40%). Anonymous juries in the experiment also “imposed the harshest punishment (expulsion) significantly more often than non-anonymous juries.”

In a 2018 paper titled “A Jury of Your (Redacted): The Rise and Implications of Anonymous Juries,” Cornell Law School student Leonardo Mangat argues that while “not without its benefits, anonymous juries raise questions regarding a defendant’s presumption of innocence” and the public’s right to an open trial. Mangat is now a clerk with the California Supreme Court.

Valerie Hans, professor of law at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, and Mangat’s former teacher, said there is another potential bias implicit in granting juror anonymity.

In the 1992 trial of the four police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles, the decision to acquit by an all-white jury led to riots in the city.

“You don’t necessarily always want to convey to a jury that the defendant is so dangerous that you need protection,” she said.

Hans said other tools can be used to provide jurors a sense of security, including televising the proceedings, as was the case in the Chauvin trial.

“When it’s on TV like that, it feels more accessible, and you the public are watching and hearing the same things the jury is, which can defuse negative attitudes toward jurors,” she said. “But having said that, there are certainly cases that warrant juror security.”

Start of juror anonymity linked to drug case

By most accounts, the first trial in which a judge ruled to keep jurors anonymous was the 1977 New York drug and organized crime case centered on Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, who was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2007 film “American Gangster.”

After Barnes and others were convicted, the case was appealed in 1979 on grounds that the judge’s jury decision was unconstitutional. But an appeals court disagreed, citing the “sordid history of attempts at influencing witnesses and jurors in cases such as these.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge James Oakes wrote that the decision created “an entirely new rule of law” and predicted that judges would soon follow that precedent just as “a flock of seagulls follows a lobster boat.”

Some soon did. The 1991 trial of mob boss John Gotti involved an anonymous jury, as did the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. In some instances, safety concerns on the part of jurors after the verdict seemed appropriate.

Mayah Varnado, 22, marches in downtown Minneapolis as jurors begin deliberating in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin.

In the 1992 trial of the four police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles, the decision to acquit by an all-white jury led to threats as part of the city erupted in riots and uprisings. Some jurors, who were later identified in some media accounts, moved away from Los Angeles.

After a Florida jury voted to find Casey Anthony not guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter in 2011, stores in Orlando posted signs saying jurors, whose names were sealed by the court, were not welcome. One juror fled the state.

First Amendment vs. juror safety

While the instances in which a judge decides to keep jurors anonymous have increased compared with decades ago, “it’s still pretty difficult to have that granted because most judges are thoughtful about the interests they’re trying to protect,” said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“The tension in this whole debate comes down to First Amendment rights and system transparency and the right for a defendant to have a fair trial with a jury that doesn’t feel pressured in any one way,” said Hannaford-Agor, who said some states have judges who are more predisposed to juror anonymity than others.

Attorney John Burris, who was part of King’s legal team during his successful civil suit against the city of Los Angeles, said he is “not troubled” by the notion of an anonymous jury “because that often can allow jurors to make a decision that they feel is appropriate. It gives them a sense of integrity and peace of mind that is important.”

Attorney John Burris, who was co-counsel during Rodney King's civil trial in 1992, addresses the media during a recent trial in the San Francisco area.

Burris, who still practices in Oakland, California, said that in the days of the King trial, there were no juror questionnaires, and attorneys had to glean all the information they could during courtroom interviews with the jury pool members.

Given that sometimes a judge can shield the name of jurors even from attorneys on both sides, Burris said, the rise of multi-question forms for jurors removes the previously critical need to know a juror’s name for legal teams to research their biases.

“We try in those questionnaires to ask anything we can, what shows they watch, their thoughts on guns, drugs and mental illness, to see how they process that information,” he said. “So, is there a conflict there, when sometimes I will know the juror’s name but the general public does not? I think it’s OK. We don’t want to invade people’s privacy in a way that hinders the judicial process.”

Burris said the biggest flaw in today’s legal system is juries that do not represent a cross-section of the population at large. While everyone summoned for jury duty must comply under penalty of law, those who are not interested in serving often find ways to convince attorneys they would not be worth selecting. Burris said granting anonymitywhen appropriate may particularly encourage jurors of color who might be concerned about public reaction to an inflammatory verdict.

“Let’s be real: This issue can be a concern for a juror,” he said. “The King verdict tore up L.A. So it depends on how things turn out.”

Despite concerns over the safety of jurors in high-profile trials, instances in which jurors are seriously harmed after the trial by the public or associates of defendants remain rare. Given that, said Arizona State University legal expert Leslie, the burden of proof for empaneling an anonymous jury should remain extraordinarily high.

“To say that today we can identify people more easily, therefore juries need to be secret, sends absolutely the wrong signal about our system of justice, which must remain open and trusted,” he said. “And in those rare cases when it is justified, the court has the obligation to release as much information about jurors as possible so the public will have confidence this is a jury of peers.”

You may also like...