I-Team Report: Anonymous Justice

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2011 file photo, singer and actress Jennifer Hudson speaks in Chicago. On Monday morning, April 23, 2012, a court official says that Hudson has arrived at the Chicago courthouse for the start of the trial of William Balfour, the man accused in the 2008 killing of her mother, brother and nephew but will not be in court for opening statements. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

April 26, 2012 5:34:09 AM PDT
Hollywood has made Jennifer Hudson a household name. Jurors in the Hudson family murder trial will not be.

Intense media interest in the case is the reason Cook County Circuit Judge Charles Burns is keeping the identities of jurors secret until after a verdict has been reached.

More than three-dozen credentials were issued -- many to entertainment reporters who do not normally cover the courts.

A spokesperson for Judge Burns told the I-Team that jurors' names are under seal to ensure reporters and the public do not contact jurors during the trial.

Jury consultant Elizabeth Foley believes social media also played a role in the judge's decision.

"People are, they just get fascinated with these jurors and so they want to dig around and find out about them," Foley said. "And I think a judge, a state or federal judge always has a concern about juror tampering. Making sure that the jurors are protected from anyone that might call them or email them or reach out to them in any way and do anything that would either create a mistrial or introduce bias."

Anonymous juries have been used sparingly for more than 30 years in federal court. The first case: 1977 and famous New York drug dealer Nicky Barnes; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had a nameless jury; so did Chicago Outfit bosses in the Family Secrets trial and most recently former governor Rod Blagojevich.

Chicago attorney Christopher Keleher is a leading expert on anonymous juries.

"They are used very rarely," Keleher said. "Essentially there have to be special circumstances whether it's organized crime defendants or a case of significant publicity, media publicity. So it is very rarely used."

Additional reasons: the defendant is part of a group that could harm jurors; or has attempted to interfere with the judicial process in the past; or there is potential for a lengthy prison term.

Despite these justifications, Keleher says jury anonymity is prejudicial.

"For a defendant to be impugned as needing an anonymous jury because they might be dangerous undermines the presumption of innocence and the defendant's right to a fair trial," he said.

"I certainly don't think that's the issue in this case," said Foley. "I think these jurors know that the reason it's anonymous is because of Jennifer Hudson."

Outside Illinois, anonymous juries are more common in state court than federal court. Maryland and Virginia judiciaries have considered anonymous juries for all trials.

The Hudson family murder case appears to be the first nameless jury panel ever to be seated in Illinois state court.

"It would be appealed if there is even an inkling of something done incorrectly, and frankly the use of an anonymous jury would be a reason to argue an appeal," said Keleher.

News organizations have challenged anonymous juries saying they violate the constitutional principal that trials should be public.

Even Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has questioned one aspect of nameless juries; in a 2008 speech Fitzgerald said judges may give inaccurate reasons to jurors for why they are anonymous and called on courts to find more "neutral" and "credible" explanations.

A secret jury isn't the only element raising legal eyebrows. Judge Burns banned in-court tweeting by reporters saying it might distract jurors. Reporters had to turn over their Twitter information and a deputy sheriff spends the day monitoring their accounts to make sure there are no errant tweets.