July 26, 2011

The jurors who declared Casey Anthony “not guilty” will remain anonymous for at least three more months, as an Orange County, Fla., judge ruled late Tuesday that concerns for their safety justify a lengthy “cooling off” period.

Lawyers for Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times, the Orlando Sentinel, WFTV and the Associated Press argued July 7 that revealing the jurors’ names is an important part of a transparent judicial process. Judge Belvin Perry agreed, but he believes there is compelling cause to protect the jurors. He also believes it could have a “chilling effect” on the jury system if revealing these jurors’ names leaves them more vulnerable to harm.

Perry’s 13-page decision includes a substantial section about journalism, called “News vs. Entertainment – Florida’s Open Records.” In that section, Perry writes of the highly-rated televised case over which he presided:

Basically, court proceedings are no longer news but entertainment. Florida’s public records laws were never intended to further the media’s (as opposed to now old-fashioned news organization’s) bottom line. … Unquestionably, use of Florida public records laws by the media (in general and not just intervenors here) has become simply a tool to sell a story. It is time that Florida’s public records laws recognize this fact and steps be taken to examine whether the laws are too broad and whether the release of certain information is causing more harm…

Perry’s decision to invoke public records laws came as a surprise, and his statements could have far-reaching implications.

“It’s explosive for a judge of this caliber to say the entire public records scheme in the history of Florida needs to be reconsidered because of this extremely extraordinary circumstance,” said Alison Steele, who argued for the release of jurors’ names on behalf of the St. Petersburg Times. (She also represents The Poynter Institute, which owns the Times.) Steele said by phone:

This is an extraordinary case and extraordinary cases make bad law. If we draw from an extraordinary case, that’s a huge mistake. That’s a retrenchment of democracy, of a hundred years of Florida law. And Florida has been a leader in the nation in terms of Sunshine [Law]. So drawing [some rule] from the very unusual and extreme case … is just wrong.”

The judge’s order allows for the release of the jurors’ names on Oct. 25.

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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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