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COA rules on anonymous juries

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on a case with a matter of first impression involving the use of anonymous juries and if they are reviewable under the harmless error analysis.

In Carl A. Major v. State of Indiana, http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/09280701cjb.pdf 45A03-0610-CR-483, Carl Major appealed his convictions of murder in the perpetration of a robbery and aggravated felony, and his aggregate sentence of 175 years in prison, arguing the trial court erred in empanelling an anonymous jury and that his sentence is inappropriate.

Major and two other males participated in a home invasion and robbery of a house in Hobart where crack was sold that had six individuals inside. One of his accomplices shot and killed three of the individuals and wounded two. Fearing the police were near, the three men ran from the site, but Major was apprehended a short while later. Major admitted to the police he agreed to help one of the men handle some business in exchange for getting paid, he knew they were going to commit a robbery, and that he carried a gun and guarded the house so no one could leave.

During voir dire in Major's trial, the defense counsel objected to the use of the "local rule," which prevented both counsels from having the names of the jurors. The court overruled, stating it would keep the names of the jurors at the bench and record the names with the court administrator's office in case there are issues of impropriety with the jury.

Major was sentenced to 55 years for each murder conviction and 10 years for the aggravated battery conviction; he was to serve those consecutively for a total of 175 years.

Major appealed, contending the use of an anonymous jury denied him certain federal rights to a fair trial and impartial jury. This is a case of first impression in Indiana, and the Court of Appeals looked to other courts for their rulings on the matter, including the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court has found empanelment of anonymous juries implicates a defendant's Fifth Amendment right to presumption of innocence. United States V. Mansoori, 304 F.3d 635, 650 (7th Cir. 2002). The appeals court noted many courts, including the 7th Circuit, have also observed that empaneling an anonymous jury may interfere with a defendant's right to a trial by an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment. United States v. Shryock, 342 F.3d at 971 (9th Cir. 2003).

Appellate courts considering this issue have relied on the standard that a trial court may have an anonymous jury if it concludes there is strong reason to believe the jury needs protection and takes reasonable measures to minimize any prejudicial effects on the defendant and to ensure his fundamental rights are protected. Courts may consider issues such as the defendant's involvement in organized crime, past attempts to interfere with judicial process, and whether publicity regarding the case presents prospective danger to the jurors.

The Court of Appeals concludes Indiana should adopt a similar position as other courts have regarding the use of anonymous juries and each case should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In evaluating Major's case, the court determined the use of an anonymous jury was an error because the trial court did not make a factual determination that the jury needed protection, it just alluded to the "local rule."

The state contends this was a harmless error, and the 7th Circuit has applied the harmless error analysis to the anonymous jury question. In this case, "given Major's confessions, the otherwise thorough nature of the voir dire, and the court's instructions regarding Major's presumption of innocence, we are convinced the error of the anonymous jury in this case was harmless," wrote Judge Cale Bradford. The court also affirmed Major's sentence was not inappropriate in light of his character and nature of his offenses.
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