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Trial by anonymous jury

Interested in silencing Baltimore traffic? Just post signs with the message, "Honk if you enjoy jury duty." The quiet would be deafening.

Jury duty may be a sacred obligation in a free society, but there are times when it can be worse than a mere inconvenience or a few days away from work. There are occasions — rare but not unknown — when jurors may be harassed, intimidated or their lives threatened by criminal defendants or their conspirators.

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Given that unfortunate reality, this week's vote by the Maryland Court of Appeals to allow juries to serve anonymously in criminal trials when a judge believes there's a likelihood of jury tampering or harassment or that their lives may be placed in danger is entirely appropriate.

The federal courts already allow for anonymous juries for these same reasons. Other states have, too. Even today, it is the practice to refer to jurors in open court by a number and not a name. Only names and hometowns of jurors are usually provided to the public.

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But the new rules, approved Monday by the court on a 6-1 vote, should also give pause. There is something, as Chief Judge Robert M. Bell noted as the lone dissenting voice on the court, that is difficult to get one's "arms around … especially in a death penalty case."

A jury given anonymity has received a subtle message from the court suggesting the defendant is a dangerous person who might do them harm. It also could prove damaging to press coverage of trials. Instances of bias could stay hidden because reporters don't have the chance to reach out and interview jurors after they have rendered their verdicts.

What's particularly troubling about the new rules is that their genesis can be traced not to an actual instance of jury harassment in a state court but to the criminal trial of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. Judge Dennis Sweeney allowed the identities of jurors in that case to be held from public view (although not from the state prosecutor or Ms. Dixon's lawyers).

In that case, Judge Sweeney was obviously concerned that heightened media attention might influence the jury's behavior. While we would respectfully disagree — the case drew considerable coverage anyway and many of the jurors' identities were ultimately disclosed — at least the circumstances were unusual.

The rules approved by the court won't take effect until Sept. 1, and they include guidelines and restrictions on which judges will have to be educated. It limits Dixon-like exclusions, noting that "In high profile cases where strong public opinion … is evident, the prospect of undue harassment, not necessarily involving juror security or any deliberate attempt at tampering, may also be of concern."

As the court's own rules committee has recommended, such anonymity should be granted only rarely. Cases where defendants have attempted to illegally influence a jury in the past or are alleged to participate in organized crime are two circumstances where it might be justified out of concern for harassment or safety.

Condoning anonymous juries in Maryland courts is not a happy development but is, on balance, a justified protection under these limited circumstances.

One trusts that Maryland judges will recognize the dangers posed by granting anonymity too readily. The potential risk of harm to juries (which is relatively small) must be balanced against the risk that a defendant will not receive a fair trial and that the public won't have the opportunity to be adequately informed.

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