Informed Public Helps System

Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
March 2, 2003

When state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi issued a "very strong, strict cautionary" in mid-February to defense and plaintiffs attorneys, he said he wanted to make sure that he would be able to find impartial jurors for the three cases before him arising from allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese. He also worried about cases that could come to trial in the future.

His initial 13-page instruction applied to lawyers and apparently to witnesses, including victims and interested parties, to keep them from speaking out publicly. The Albany Diocese making public its disciplining a priest for cause could have fallen under the ban.

As such, his action appeared to be unique among the current spate of legal actions throughout the country connected with charges of sexual misconduct by clergy with minors. In no other jurisdiction had a judge gone that far, as best as could be ascertained.

Since then, the justice in response to a letter from a defense attorney asking for clarification limited his cautionary to the traditional rules governing the conduct of lawyers. Nothing was said about witnesses.

Whoever is included at this stage in the cautionary (its exact scope remains unclear), the likelihood of finding a jury that would not be somewhat acquainted with allegations of clerical abuse seems more than remote. The question really is whether such a "virgin" jury is necessary or even particularly desirable.

Under a certain (and arguably patronizing) view of a perfect jury, people exposed to information about a pending case, whether too much of the good kind (factual) or the bad kind ("rumor, gossip and innuendo") would not be able to properly execute their juror's oath. Taking it to its logical implications, then, the ideal juror would be a person who had neither read, heard nor seen any TV about the matter at trial.

In our day, that means someone so shut out from interest in the life of the community that he or she would not have cared enough to become informed in the least way about such a compelling and heart-wrenching matter as the shocking misbehavior of clergy.

Such an indifferent person should, in fact, be among the least qualified to serve on a jury. He or she would be either a dolt, incapable of discerning grievous wrongdoing, or alienated from the rest of the world, lacking even the minimal empathy required to live successfully among others.

Society is best served if most people are not turned off or uncaring about what is happening in their community. Most people do take an interest when allegations of this sort attain a general credibility, whether it impacts them directly or not.

Especially given the adversarial nature of the justice system, an informed, engaged and intelligent person should constitute the preferred juror. That juror would be capable of heeding most strictly the judge's admonition to decide the case on the basis of the evidence presented in court and nothing else. That juror would have the sophistication and the savvy to keep whatever he or she may have heard, read or seen about the case from interfering with the juror's sworn oath.

A long-ago event, Watergate, was exposed by intensive media coverage over many months of allegations of wrongdoing at the highest level of government. It was those news reports that set in motion the wheels of justice, even though in time they would amount to a superabundance of pretrial publicity.

Despite the barrage of news coverage, several juries were impaneled and able to render justice. No one was deprived of a fair trial. If the accused in Watergate could get fair trials, then it also should be possible to discover fair-minded jurors in Albany County today.

A fair public trial is the cornerstone of American justice. Public engagement with important matters before they come to trial would seem to be a contributing ingredient. If witnesses and potential witnesses were to be silenced by the court, then those with legitimate complaints could be intimidated from coming forward and speaking out.

In cases such as these, some of the claims will be fraudulent; others will involve genuine victims too afraid to speak out before. The justice system, with an interested and informed public looking on, will sort out the allegations.

Harry Rosenfeld is editor-at-large of the Times Union. His e-mail address is

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