A few days into the 1992 trial of New York organized crime boss John Gotti, U.S. District Judge I. Leo Glasser was faced with an unprecedented request, not from Gotti’s defense team, but from the group of sequestered jurors in the case. Already separated from loved ones for weeks, some jurors were asking for conjugal visits.
It was the first, and still the only, case in the Brooklyn federal courthouse to have an anonymous and fully sequestered jury, Glasser said, and he was unsure how to respond to the request. So were the fellow judges he consulted. Glasser ultimately allowed spouses to have private visits at the jurors’ hotel throughout the trial.
“Jurors in any case make a personal sacrifice,” Glasser said. “They are removed from their families and jobs and are unable to share their experiences with anyone, until their obligations at the courthouse have been fulfilled.”
High profile trials demand much more of jurors personally than other cases do. They can last for weeks or months, attract intense media attention, expose jurors to physical threats and emotional stress, and force them into long periods of isolation, with only their fellow jurors and court personnel for company. Federal courts across the country take many measures to protect jurors’ well-being and preserve the integrity of justice.
In Gotti’s case, he previously beat multiple federal charges. Acquitted after trials that prosecutors later proved were tainted by jury tampering and witness intimidation, Gotti was labeled the “Teflon Don” by the media. There were no such juror irregularities in the 1992 trial, and Gotti was found guilty of all 13 charges against him, including murder and racketeering. He spent the rest of his life in prison.
Federal judges have adopted a wide range of precautions to ensure that juries are protected from threats or harassment in high-profile cases. In some cases, they work with the U.S. Marshals Service to sequester jurors, housing them at hotels whose locations are kept secret and transporting them to the courthouse from varying pickup locations and in varying types of vehicles.
Federal judges often use numbers to refer to jurors in court and sometimes decide to use “anonymous” juries, where jurors’ names, addresses and other identifiers are kept private from litigants and the public. In such cases, precautions are taken to minimize any risk of prejudice to either party.
“A juror’s world is not in the courtroom, but when people are selected for jury service, they take their roles seriously, listen to the judge, and respect the process,” said John Gleeson, a former U.S. district judge in the Eastern District of New York and a prosecutor in the Gotti case.
During the trial, Gotti misbehaved in a number of ways in an attempt to distract jurors and others in the courtroom, Gleeson recalled. After Gotti made several vulgar and disparaging remarks to Gleeson and the prosecution team, Glasser warned the defendant that he’d be watching the remainder of his trial on a television screen from a cell if the bad behavior continued.
Courtroom shenanigans were the least of U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown’s concerns while presiding over two multi-defendant criminal trials following the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural southeastern Oregon. Defendants in the cases included Ammon Bundy and his family, along with a group of “sovereign citizens” who believe they are separate from the United States and are therefore not subject to the government’s authority.
As supporters of the defense flooded traditional and social media with references to the case and made persistent threats against those involved in the judicial proceedings, Brown focused on seating a fair and impartial – and safe – jury. The population of the area where the crime occurred was too small from which to draw a jury, and the courthouse lacked the necessary security.
The judge decided to move the case to Portland and sent summonses out across all four of the District of Oregon’s federal court divisions to address security concerns and produce a sufficient jury pool. Aware that some prospective jurors would have to travel to a courthouse over 400 miles from their homes, Brown arranged for jurors to complete a substantive written questionnaire at home. That allowed her to significantly narrow the pool of qualified jurors prior to anyone traveling to the courthouse for jury selection.
Once the jury was selected, Brown put them under partial sequestration, providing them the option to sleep at their own homes while remaining isolated from the public during the times the trial was in session. She also maintained the anonymity of the jury by assigning badges with numbers that corresponded with seats in the jury box and appointing a pro bono attorney to represent those interested in remaining anonymous following the trial. Brown limited jury proceedings to four days a week to give jurors time for personal obligations, before having to head back to a hotel or designated pickup location near the courthouse.
“We know in cases like these that jury service can be a particular heavy burden, but partial sequestration may be the only way to ensure jurors are not at risk,” Brown said.
In addition to preventive security measures, federal judges may authorize free counseling to jurors who served in a traumatic trial. The service, offered through an interagency agreement with the Federal Occupational Health Employee Assistance Program, is both confidential and voluntary. In the sessions, jurors have the chance to wrestle with feelings of fear and anxiety that may linger after the conclusion of the trial.
In the case of mass murderer Dylann Roof in the District Court of South Carolina, the court and Jury Administrator Jeff Cargile were ready with an offer of counseling service to jurors when the trial and its emotionally charged testimony ended.
The jurors heard survivors share horrific details of Roof opening fire at close range on members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during their Bible study. They also watched video of Roof laughing as he confessed to the killings during an interview with law enforcement. After a day of emotional testimony, the defendant’s mother collapsed in the courtroom, suffering a heart attack.
“Jurors aren’t specially equipped to listen to or watch graphic and disturbing material,” Cargile said. “The counseling service allows us to help jurors unload that experience following trial.”
Cargile and federal court staff across the country try to keep the mood light when jurors are not actively engaged in the proceedings. They offer jurors meals, make jokes, and talk to them about life outside the courthouse.
“We may not be able to get jurors a sirloin steak, but we can certainly get them candy,” Cargile said. “Little things like that can make all the difference during a tense trial.”
“Can I call my doctor? How long will I be sitting here? Will we be leaving here on time?” are just some of the concerns that Judge Brown quells for jurors before the start of a trial.
She ensures that proceedings end on time each day and allows jurors to keep their cellphones, as long as they aren’t used in the courtroom or to look up information related to the case. Brown also occasionally treats them to home-baked goods.
“Jurors need to feel comfortable to do their jobs well,” she said. “Each of us have responsibilities to ourselves and others and they don’t suddenly come to a halt when you’re called in for service. Jurors need to know you care about them.”
Federal judges agree that jury service is a vital civic contribution and that the constitutional right to a trial by jury is not something to be taken for granted.
“If I ever find myself on trial, I’d take 12 jurors over just one of my colleagues any day of the week,” said Gleeson, a former federal judge. “Not because I don’t trust judges to do right by the law, but because I believe in the process. Jurors are just as good as judges at resolving disputes of fact. Plus there are 12 of them. Each one brings his or her own unique human experience and perspective, and working together they deliver the best possible form of justice.”
The effects of jury service stretch far beyond the courtroom.
“Jury service instills public confidence in the criminal justice system for those serving, accused of a crime, and the community at large, ensuring them that the system will function fairly and competently for all,” Gleeson said.