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Criminal Practice – Jury & Jurors – ‘Anonymous’ Jury – Murder Trial – First Impression – Constitutional – Hearsay Evidence – Murdered Witness — Conspiracy

Criminal Practice – Jury & Jurors – ‘Anonymous’ Jury – Murder Trial – First Impression – Constitutional – Hearsay Evidence – Murdered Witness — Conspiracy

U.S. v. Dinkins (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-01-0859, 50 pp.) (Keenan, J.) No. 09-4668(L), Aug. 14, 2012; USDC at Baltimore, Md. (Motz, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: Using an ‘anonymous’ jury whose biographical information has been withheld from defense lawyers and defendants accused of drug-trafficking and the murder of government witnesses is not a reason to overturn their convictions; the 4th Circuit follows decisions by its sister circuits and provides guidelines for use of anonymous juries.

Among the several issues presented in this appeal by three defendants who were tried together on charges relating to the murder of government witnesses, we consider the primary issues of the district court’s decision to empanel an “anonymous jury,” in which biographical information about prospective jurors was withheld from the parties and counsel; and the admissibility of hearsay statements of a murdered government witness under the “forfeiture by wrongdoing” exception of the hearsay rule and the Confrontation Clause.

We conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion in maintaining juror anonymity and that the challenged hearsay statements were admissible based on defendants’ conduct leading to the witness’s death.

In the decades following U.S. v. Barnes, 604 F.2d 121 (2d Cir. 1979), federal courts have increasingly used anonymous juries on a limited basis in certain types of criminal cases. The issue of the circumstances under which a district court may empanel an anonymous jury presents a matter of first impression in this circuit. Every federal appeals court to have considered this issue has held that a district court’s decision to empanel an anonymous jury is reviewed under a deferential abuse-of discretion standard. We apply this standard as well. Our review of the record reveals that the district court took appropriate measures to safeguard the defendants’ right to trial by an impartial jury. Counsel for all parties collaboratively drafted the extensive juror questionnaire that was sent to prospective jurors. While the names and addresses of the venire members, and of their spouses, were withheld from counsel, any possibility of prejudice stemming from this omission was lessened significantly because counsel were provided the zip codes, the county, and the neighborhoods in which the prospective jurors resided. The juror questionnaire also included many questions concerning the employment of the venire members and of their spouses. Individual voir dire of the prospective jurors was conducted over the course of four days, and the defendants have not identified any specific aspect of this jury selection process that allegedly was inadequate or resulted in prejudice to them. Therefore, based on the above considerations, we conclude that the defendants’ right to an impartial jury was not infringed by the district court’s decision retaining juror anonymity.

Evidence in the record supported the district court’s findings that an anonymous jury was necessary, and that the district court took reasonable steps to safeguard defendants’ rights. The district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding to empanel an anonymous jury.

Further, the 4th Circuit rejects claims that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to order separate trials for defendants and erred by rejecting a Batson challenge to the strike of an African-American female juror.

Finally, the district court did not err when it admitted into evidence hearsay statements by a government informant who had been murdered.

The purpose of the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing exception is to prevent “abhorrent behavior which strikes at the heart of the system of justice itself.” We have not yet considered the question whether hearsay statements may be admitted under the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing exception pursuant to a conspiracy theory of liability, when a defendant’s co-conspirators engaged in the wrongdoing that ultimately rendered the declarant unavailable as a witness. We now conclude that traditional principles of conspiracy liability are applicable within the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing analysis. Our conclusion is supported by decisions of our sister circuits applying principles of conspiratorial liability in this context. Admission of the testimony is upheld.

Judgments affirmed.

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