Anonymous juries must be a rare exception

The Court of Appeals’ decision to allow anonymous juries in criminal trials when a judge believes juror safety, harassment or tampering is a concern is a good one, but its application should be strictly limited. We appreciate the views of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the sole dissenting vote on the issue, who said he has a philosophical problem with anonymous juries, particularly in death penalty cases. The hallmark of our justice system is its openness. We consider the application of our laws as a matter of public interest and one deserving of public scrutiny, and allowing criminal suspects to be judged by anonymous individuals runs fundamentally counter to that notion.

However, it is also clear that the issue of jury intimidation, harassment or worse is real. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger is right to point to the case of Patrick Byers Jr., who ordered the 2007 killing of a witness in a separate murder case from his jail cell, and who, before his trial in that case, was found again with a cell phone behind bars. He was tried in federal court, which does allow anonymous juries in such instances, but had he been tried in circuit court, members of the jury would have had real cause for fear.

The question will be one of application. Given the problems of intimidation and gang violence in Baltimore City and, to some extent, other jurisdictions, prosecutors could make no end of arguments that a jury should be kept anonymous. Judges must be given clear instructions and guidelines to make sure that anonymous juries are a rare exception to the rule.

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