The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that trial courts must keep lists containing the names of jurors, and those lists must be made available to the media and the public. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Fujita.
Nathaniel Fujita was convicted of first-degree murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in 2013, following a trial in which the Commonwealth proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant strangled, beat, and slashed to death his former girlfriend. The defendant and the victim were recent Wayland High School graduates and both preparing to attend college. The defendant’s lawyer argued at trial that the defendant was psychotic at the time of the killing and accordingly was not criminally responsible for the victim’s death. The jury rejected that defense. The defendant is serving a life sentence and his case is under appeal.
The present case deals not with the facts of the case, but with whether the Boston Globe had a right to learn the identities of the jurors. During the trial, the Globe filed a motion to obtain the jurors’ names and addresses immediately following the verdict. The trial judge told the Globe that he would reach out to the jurors and ask if they wanted to speak to the media. The judge would then provide those jurors’ names to Globe. Ultimately, the judge gave the names and addresses of two jurors to the Globe. The Globe was unsatisfied with the trial judge’s response to its motion and appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that in every criminal case, a list of the jurors must be kept in the court file and made available to the public (including members of the media) in the same way that other court documents are made available. The list can be impounded (shielded from the public) only if a judge determines that there is a risk of harm to the jurors or to the integrity of their service.
In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Robert Cordy pointed out that the identities of jurors in criminal cases have long been public, even in high-profile cases (dating back to at least 1770, when the jurors who decided the case of the British soldiers charged with the Boston Massacre were known to the public). Accordingly, it is appropriate (and now mandated) for juror names to be listed in the court file of every criminal case. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s desire to protect the jurors’ privacy and their desire to not be bothered by the media is insufficient as a matter of law to order that their names be impounded.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Ralph Gants agreed that the names of jurors are public, and said the Globe could have ordered a transcript of the trial to obtain them. He disagreed with the majority that the trial court has an obligation to create a list with the jurors’ names for inclusion in the court file. The chief justice also pointed out that such a juror list would be available to any member of the public who wanted to see it. Anyone who was unhappy with a verdict could easily view the juror list and attempt to communicate with the jurors by phone, mail, email, or social media. The chief justice said he does not think it is wise to encourage such postverdict communications.