Ban on post-trial juror interviews shrouds judicial process

Sunday, March 15, 1998

It happened in the O.J. Simpson criminal case.

It happened again in Simpson’s civil trial.

And it happened again after the conviction of Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

A high-profile case ends and the public wonders, “What was the jury thinking?” So the press asks jurors questions about how they arrived at the verdict.

The answers can be revealing. The public learned that sloppy police work spurred reasonable doubt in the first Simpson trial and that distrust of the federal government colored deliberations in the Nichols case. Interviewing jurors after a case can give insight into the effectiveness of the judicial system and provide valuable information about the jury process.

Yet this check on the quality of justice was undercut in June by a federal district judge in Louisiana, who ordered the news media not to conduct post-trial interviews with jurors about their deliberations in a corruption case involving two state senators.

The judge’s concern was that jurors in future trials might feel inhibited in deliberations if there were a chance their comments later would emerge in the press. Ironically, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the restriction in order to protect “freedom of speech within the jury room.”

What about the freedom of speech of reporters who want to ask questions about how a verdict was reached? A juror retains the right to say “no comment” or hang up the phone. Conversely, a juror also is free to call a press conference.

As a lawyer and reporter who covered court cases, I repeatedly have heard judges speak highly of juries. Jurors are characterized as hard-working people who take their mission seriously and try to follow judges’ instructions. Would conscientious jurors concur in a verdict that they thought unjust simply because of the chance that a reporter might later inquire about it?

The decision is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. As it stands, the judge’s order shrouds a process that needs to be illuminated.

The public doesn’t have a positive impression of the criminal justice system. A recent Gallup poll found that 40% of respondents said they have “very little” or “no confidence” in the system.

The remedy for that distrust is full and fair reporting of the process, allowing the public to increase its understanding of the criminal justice system and how it works. That’s not accomplished by infringing on First Amendment rights and short-circuiting the role of a free press.