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Silencing Porter jury hurts public, prospects for justice

UM law professor: Silencing the jury in the Porter trial isn't in the interests of the public or justice.

As someone who attended each day of Officer William Porter's highly publicized trial on homicide and assault charges in the death of Freddie Gray, I gained added respect for our justice system and the presiding judge's even-handed, well-reasoned rulings and ultimate concern for jurors that kept the case on schedule as promised.

The court's continuing gag order against the trial attorneys speaking to media, though, combined with journalists' failure to challenge a judge's purported advice that jurors remain silent, makes your reporters' news article of great importance ("A rare hush over gray case," Jan. 3). The public's right to know and need to hear about jurors' deliberation process that led to a mistrial becomes essential in understanding jurors' inability to reach a unanimous verdict.

We should pause to thank one juror, herself an attorney who might have been speaking for others, for stepping forward. She presents the quandary of jurors honoring the judge's words while seeking to inform and educate us.

Professor Mark Weaver's follow-up opinion piece calls attention to the delicate balance a trial judge faces ("Let the Porter case jurors speak," Jan. 5) between protecting jurors' right to speak after rendering a decision as the community's representatives and ensuring an accused's right to a fair trial. Professor Weaver correctly asserts that the Porter jurors are entitled to choose to speak after concluding jury duty.

It is not only the public, though, who stands to benefit. Prosecuting and defense lawyers learn by speaking to jurors and understanding the reasons for a jury's divide and how (and whether) to move forward at retrial. A 9-3 or greater majority in favor or against finding Officer Porter guilty provides essential information that would likely guide the lawyers' future actions.

Despite a conscientious judge's best of intentions to protect the jury process and to be mindful of upcoming trials, it is easy to understand jurors' confusion between the giving of advice and a court's directive. The trial judge can easily clarify, as Professor Weaver suggests, jurors' right to go public and to relinquish their anonymity or to choose instead to retain their invisibility and silence.

Douglas Colbert, Baltimore

The writer is a professor at the University of Maryland King Carey School of Law.

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