Judicial Notebook

In May 2001, a young intern named Chandra Levy disappeared in Washington, D.C. The search for Levy garnered national attention, particularly when investigators discovered that she had been romantically involved with then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.). Despite a lengthy investigation and intense publicity, the case remained unsolved for years, even after Levy's remains were located in Rock Creek Park in 2002. The media remained actively involved in the case, and in 2008, The Washington Post published an in-depth investigation of Levy's murder. The Post focused attention on Ingmar Guandique, a 19-year-old man from El Salvador who had assaulted two women in Rock Creek Park shortly after Levy disappeared. In March 2009, Guandique was charged with Levy's murder.

‘Right of public access'

Given the extensive media coverage surrounding the case, the trial court used a lengthy written questionnaire to explore the backgrounds of potential jurors, gauge their familiarity with the case, and probe their attitudes about Latinos and immigration issues. To help ensure candor, the trial court promised potential jurors that their answers would be kept confidential. After the questionnaires were completed, potential jurors were interviewed in an oral voir dire that was open to the public. A jury was selected, and the trial began.

Almost immediately, The Washington Post attempted — first informally and then by filing a motion — to get copies of the jurors' questionnaires from the court. In response, the court provided limited biographical information about each juror, but would not release the questionnaires. The court cited its promise to the jurors that their answers would be kept confidential, and argued that jurors' answers would be less candid and useful if they were made available to the public. After Guandique was convicted, the judge again declined to release the questionnaires.

The Post appealed, and in January 2012, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the trial court's decision. The court noted that the public's First Amendment right of access to jury selection information is "well settled," and reasoned that juror questionnaires were no different from oral examination of potential jurors. "The right of public access," the court observed, "is ‘a right that any member of the public can assert,' whether it is for the purpose of reporting on a trial as it unfolds or researching jury selection ten years later." Despite this presumption of access, the court acknowledged that individual responses could be redacted if the trial judge identified a specific and narrow privacy concern that required removal. The court remanded the case to the trial court to allow the judge to contact the jurors and consider whether any information should be redacted. A few days later, the trial court released the questionnaires to the press, removing only responses to a question asking whether the juror or a close friend or relative had ever been the victim of a sexual assault.

Implications for research

Social science can inform a range of issues raised by the legal struggle to balance juror privacy against the public's right of access. Most jurisdictions allow keeping jurors' identities confidential before, during and sometimes after trial in limited circumstances. Proponents of anonymous juries argue that shielding jurors' identities protects jurors from potentially dangerous defendants, aggressive media inquiries and negative publicity. Opponents, however, respond that it can be harder to vet or trust anonymous jurors. The decision in the Levy case raised similar tensions. Social scientists can offer insight into how to facilitate disclosure, the degree to which promises of confidentiality do or do not increase disclosure, and how public perceptions of the trustworthiness and legitimacy of the jury process can be influenced by the rules courts follow with regard to juror privacy. The court's decision also provides some reassurance to jury scholars that the First Amendment protects public access to jury information for research purposes (see e.g., MacKillopp, 2005).


"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).