Blago and Bonds Judges Say Social Media Made Them Hide Jurors’ Identities

Panelists stay anonymous to prevent contact from online friends during trial.

Concerned that mid-trial technology use is tainting the jury—and jeopardizing litigants’ rights to a fair trial—judges are conflicted about how to prevent Internet-related misconduct.

Some courts confiscate all digital devices and issue somewhat unenforceable rules restricting forms of online communication. But in two recent high-profile cases—the Rod Blagojevich political corruption trial and the Barry Bonds perjury trial—judges have sought to preserve jurors’ impartial views even further by concealing panelists’ identities until the trial is over. The strategy seeks to cut off unsolicited questions and comments from the media and online friends.

“The concern was that, although a juror may not reach out and publish an opinion or write an e-mail about the trial, somebody could send something to them, and they can’t avoid seeing it,” says Dr. Joseph Rice, CEO of the Jury Research Institute, a provider of trial-consulting services.

In summer 2010, during the first trial against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who allegedly tried to sell President Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, Judge James Zagel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois withheld jurors’ names until after the verdict. The Associated Press reported that Judge Zagel’s reasoning for the secrecy was that the “astounding pervasiveness of e-mail and social media” heightened the danger that acquaintances could contact and influence jurors.

In April, Judge Zagel told reporters that he would follow the same anonymity protocol for Blagojevich’s retrial, which began in May.

During the March trial against former Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds, who allegedly lied to a grand jury about using illegal steroids, Judge Susan Illston from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California cited Judge Zagel’s logic for her decision to also keep jurors’ names under wraps.

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