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The New England First Amendment Coalition and several press advocates submitted an amicus brief in Rhode Island Superior Court today contesting recent orders to keep secret a juror list and to bar contact with the jurors in a completed, high-profile murder case.
The brief — drafted by attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman of Strauss Factor Laing & Lyons — is on behalf of NEFAC, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, Nexstar Media Group (WPRI-TV) and Sinclair Broadcasting (WJAR-TV).
In the brief, the groups argued that:
[P]ost-verdict interviews serve valuable purposes: they can help ensure jury accountability; they can help the public understand, and therefore accept, trial outcomes; they can educate the public about the realities of jury service; and they can improve the justice system’s functioning by exposing mistakes, misunderstandings, and misconduct.
The brief is in support of a recent lawsuit filed by the Providence Journal after the three-week trial of Jorge DePina, who was convicted in March of murdering his daughter. The Journal challenged both the court’s decision to withhold the juror list as well as an order by Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel directing all members of the public, including journalists, to refrain from contacting any of the jurors in the case.
Following an April 30 letter by NEFAC expressing “grave concerns” about the court’s actions, as well as severe criticism from other First Amendment advocates, Judge Vogel on May 7 vacated her order banning media contact with jurors. Despite her decision to do so, there still remained questions about whether non-media members of the public could contact jurors under her original order. The juror list also continued to be sealed.
The brief submitted today in support of the Journal cites numerous state and federal court decisions supporting the First Amendment right to both interview jurors after a verdict and to obtain the names of those jurors.
“The Superior Court’s orders facially violate the Providence Journal’s freedoms of the press and of speech [and] … the freedom of speech of other Rhode Islanders who may wish to speak with the jurors about the jurors’ exercise of their citizenship duties,” the groups argued. “This prevents all of us from confirming whether the jury acted as the conscience of the community in discharging those duties and whether the jurors were confident in their verdict.”
The groups also argued that the court’s orders violated due process because the judge implemented them without any notice or opportunity to be heard.
Statements from Participants in the Amicus Brief:
James Bessette | President of the Rhode Island Press Association: “The Rhode Island Press Association supports journalism in this state and is a major proponent of the First Amendment. We are deeply concerned over Judge Vogel’s gag order on the media as we feel it’s unconstitutional. We strongly support the Providence Journal in this matter.”
Steven Brown | Executive Director of the ACLU of RI: “This case involves much more than the rights of the media. It involves the right of the public to be informed, which lies at the heart of the First Amendment and is fundamental to a properly functioning democracy.”
Justin Silverman | Executive Director of the New England First Amendment Coalition: “We have a First Amendment right to know who is sitting on our juries and to ask them about their experiences. This type of access is crucial to our understanding of the court system. It gives much needed transparency to the judicial process and helps preserve the integrity of our courts.”
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.