Derek Gentile: Shielding jurors from news tricky
Big trial in Berkshire County this week. Or actually, in Springfield, since the defense requested and was granted a change of venue.
I sometimes get questions about changes of venue, since I used to cover courts.
I agree that in this Internet age, it is certainly hard to find someone that has no knowledge of a specific trial. But no one, either the defense or the prosecution, actually expects a potential juror to be clueless about a specific case. I think if someone emerged that was totally unaware of the so-called triple murder case to which this trial is connected, it would be surprising indeed.
No, what lawyers on both sides are hoping for are jurors who are interested in keeping an open mind, and who pay attention to both sides arguing the case, and to the judge.
This is not always the case. Years ago, I was covering a case in which a younger man sexually assaulted an older female relative. It was a weird and grotesque story. And that's all I care to say about it.
Anyway, jury selection ended on a Friday afternoon, and the judge in the case decided to send the jurors home because the trial itself hadn't begun.
The judge in the case also noticed me in the courtroom. So he instructed the jury that a member of the media was going to write about the trial and that they were not to read the report that would appear in the next day's Eagle.
He asked if everyone understood that this was not a request, but an order. Everyone nodded.
So, of course, on Monday morning, a juror asked to be recused because she had read my story.
The judge was a little put out. But he recused her. Then he asked if anyone else had read the story. Five more hands went up.
The judge by now was more than a little exasperated.
"Didn't any of you hear my instructions?" he asked.
"I couldn't help it," said one juror. "I always read the paper in the morning." (Which caused, when I related the story in the newsroom a little later, one enterprising editor to suggest we talk to our circulation department. The ad would be: "The Berkshire Eagle -- even when a judge tells you not to read it, you just can't help it." That suggestion was quickly dismissed.)
Anyway, long story short, the defendant opted to go forward with a magistrate's trial, which is a trial by a judge only. And he lost.
This was a good thing, for me. Several local police officers had investigated the case, and done a good job collecting the evidence, by the way. But they weren't happy that a retrial loomed.
Anyway, a few months later, I ran into one of the jurors, who happened to be a South County acquaintance.
He told me that he was very aware of the judge's instruction when he picked up The Eagle that Saturday.
But, he said, he didn't see the story on the front of our "B" section, so he started reading.
"Then I noticed your byline," he said. "And I said, 'Oh, a story by Derek.' So I started reading it. And damned if it wasn't that story."
"You didn't see me in the courtroom the other day?" I asked.
"Actually, I did," he responded. "But I didn't think you were covering our trial. I thought it was something else."
I didn't pursue it, because to this day, I wasn't sure if it was a compliment or not. I tend to doubt it.
Derek Gentile is an Eagle staffer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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