Groups Submit Brief Challenging Court’s Denial of Jury List in Murder Case

Posted: May, 09, 2018

The ACLU of RI, joined by four media organizations, today submitted a “friend of the court” brief to contest Superior Court Associate Justice Netti Vogel’s orders last month blocking the release of the juror list, and barring members of the public from contacting the jurors, in a completed, high-profile murder case. The brief, submitted by ACLU volunteer attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, is on behalf of the ACLU; the New England First Amendment Coalition; the R.I. Press Association; Nexstar Media Group, which owns WPRI-TV; and Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns WJAR-TV. The brief supports a recent lawsuit filed by the Providence Journal, which was rebuffed in its effort to obtain the jury list after Jorge DePina was convicted of the second-degree murder of his daughter.

The brief submitted today in support of the Journal cites numerous state and federal court decisions for the proposition that the public and the media have a First Amendment right to both interview willing jurors after a verdict and to obtain the list of jurors. In terms of the public interest in this information, the brief cites a study of news articles involving juror interviews, which found that
          
“post-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 concludes by arguing:

“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.  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 Superior Court’s orders are also overbroad in that they place no reasonable limits as to the time, place, or manner of their prohibitions against free speech.”

In addition to the free speech and free press claims, the brief claims that the Court’s orders violated due process because the judge implemented them without any notice or opportunity to be heard.    
                                                                                  
Yesterday, Judge Vogel partially revised her April 6th order by stating that “[m]embers of the media are not precluded from contacting the jurors.” However, the order did not address at all the denial of the media list to the Providence Journal, and did not make clear whether members of the public, as opposed to the media, were allowed to contact the jurors.
          
A hearing on the motion to overturn the orders is scheduled for May 14th at 2 PM before Superior Court Judge Maureen Keough.

Full text of the brief is available here.

STATEMENTS FROM PARTICIPANTS IN THE BRIEF:

Justin Silverman, Executive Director, 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.”

James Bessette, President, 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, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island: “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.”