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Diane Dimond: Public Records Law Puts Jurors in Casey Anthony Trial at Risk

Sunshine laws allowing for easy access to information aren't always a good idea

Every state has laws that govern the public’s access to government records. From New Mexico to North Dakota, Alabama to Alaska, each have varying degrees of these so-called sunshine laws.

The media love sunshine laws because they allow easy access to information. But many on the other end of the equation don’t feel so “sunshine-y” about having their business or personal information revealed to the public.

There is no state more liberal in doling out government information than Florida (coincidentally nicknamed the Sunshine State), and in my opinion its public records law has now put some of its own citizens at risk.

Specifically, I’m talking about the 17 men and women randomly chosen as jurors and alternates to sit in judgment at the notorious murder trial of Casey Anthony. Florida has now revealed their identities to the public in the name of open government.

Chief Judge Belvin Perry didn’t think it was a good idea. He presided over the trial that ended with 25-year-old Anthony acquitted of murdering her 2½-year-old daughter, Caylee. Perry knew state law obliged him to reveal the names of the jurors after the verdict, but in an extraordinary move he ordered a three-month cooling-off period.

“It is clear,” the judge wrote in an eloquent 12-page decision, “the jurors in this case face the possibility of substantial injury if their names are immediately made public.” Quite an understatement, I’d say.

The moment the verdict was broadcast on live television on the afternoon of July 5, 2011, massive outrage at the jury decision erupted. Outside the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, one protester held a homemade sign that read: “Juror 1-12 Guilty of Murder!!!” The more that breathless cable TV hosts reported the anti-jury sentiment, the more it grew.

The ferocious reaction quickly spread across the Internet, too. Online petitions sprang up within hours and were signed by 1.3 million people. One called for the federal government to retry Anthony on federal charges, another pleaded for new laws to mandate immediate police reports of missing children. (Caylee had not been seen for a month when the sheriff was finally notified.)

The sheer numbers of people involved was a testament to the public’s fury over the jury’s verdict. The jurors were quietly bused back to their homes, where they, basically, kept a low profile ever since.

To this day, the emotional and sometimes violent reaction continues. Every time there is a development in the case — from Anthony’s probation meetings to unconfirmed reports that she is selling her story to a TV network or book publisher — messages excoriating the jury wash over the Web. Some have called for the jurors to be killed.

Thanks to Florida’s very public records law, there are now 17 citizens waiting to see if releasing their identities will lead determined cyber-sleuths to discover their home addresses and phone numbers.

One of the former jurors is a 70-something-year-old mother of three who lives with her elderly boyfriend. There is a 60-ish black woman who said during jury selection she was uncomfortable judging other people, that God should be the final judge. One female retiree has already fled the state, telling law enforcement she had received death threats and would “rather go to jail” than ever serve on a jury again.

There is a high school government teacher who said he relished jury duty on the Anthony case so he could use it as a teachable lesson for his students. (Wonder if he’s still so glad he was chosen?) And, there are several panelists who have small children at home and now worry if they’re safe.

Prominent Florida attorney Mark NeJame followed the Anthony case closely and believes the Anthony jurors are at risk.

“High-profile cases are becoming interactive with the public, who watch and comment in real time and who become enthralled with a case,” NeJame said. “Since the trial is being watched by all, including some with mental issues, miscreants and vigilante types, the risk of danger to a juror in such cases clearly increases.”

Perry’s cooling-off order mentioned every juror’s constitutional right to privacy, and he made a point of saying they “were essentially voiceless” regarding the release of their names. The judge urged the state Legislature to review the law to see if it might be doing more harm than good. No lawmaker has stepped up to the challenge.

It seems to me we already have a heck of a problem getting citizens excited about jury service. This example gives the wary another excuse to want to dodge the duty. Who in their right mind would want to serve if, in the end, the reward is public scorn and death threats? Sometimes, I believe, a judge should be able to withhold the names of jurors for safety reasons.

As someone who has built her career relying on First Amendment rights and the free flow of information, I don’t say this lightly: Sometimes too much sunshine can blind you.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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