Testimony in the trial of Brian Fitch, the man accused of killing a Mendota Heights police officer last summer, hadn’t even started yet and already there’s a question of journalistic ethics.
A female juror in the case asked out of jury duty because a story about jury selection essentially identified her by providing specific details about her job.
The Pioneer Press is believed to be the news organization that provided the juror’s details in a story that ran last week.
One juror seated Thursday does medical work for a contractor at the Stearns County Jail. She gave medications to Fitch there Monday night, after she’d been called for jury selection. He’s still getting treatment for gunshot wounds sustained during his arrest.
The woman said Fitch hasn’t spoken to her but has been cooperative. She said she remembers some of the medications he’s taking but wouldn’t disclose anything to other jurors. She said she wouldn’t work at the jail during the trial or hold the fact that she knows Fitch is jailed against him.
The defense initially expressed reservations but let her through. After a conference with the judge, the prosecution did so as well.
A second juror on Tuesday also said she could be identified from media accounts and she, too, was excused, the Star Tribune reported.
In a perfect world, the news reporting wouldn’t affect the operation of the case, but the mentioning of the woman’s job was an important element of jury selection.
First, it’s unusual that someone empaneled for a jury would, in the course of her job, have contact with the person on trial. And, second, that she made it onto the jury suggests the difficulty moving the case to St. Cloud had on finding jurors able to determine the fate of the accused.
The judge moved the trial from the Twin Cities because of widespread media coverage in the Twin Cities of the police complaint against Fitch in which he reportedly said, “Just so you know, I hate cops and I’m guilty.”
This afternoon, the judge delayed the start of testimony in the case because another witness — a Sherburne County jail inmate — reportedly says Fitch confessed to him. The news media is reporting that detail this afternoon as it should, of course. The detail about the jurors involvement with Fitch — however small — is no different.
Even ignoring the obvious First Amendment violation of prohibiting a newspaper from publishing information about people who serve on juries, there’s a good reason why a judge wouldn’t attempt to provide jurors with anonymity: it makes the defendant look dangerous, impairing the presumption of innocence.
The Media Institute reported that the use of anonymous juries in federal cases increased in 2001, but a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision declared unconstitutional the practice of prohibiting news media from reporting names of jurors it obtained independently.
In the Fitch case, however, no news organization has published the names of jurors. They’ve merely reported what was happening in a public courtroom, which is their job.