Supreme Judicial Court (April 5, 2007)

An order impounding the names and addresses of jurors who served at a murder trial involving gang violence was not an abuse of discretion by the trial judge.

Prior to the verdict in a gang-related murder trial, a reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times filed a motion requesting post verdict access to the names and addresses of the trial jurors. The judge denied the motion for access to the jury list and ordered the jurors' names and addresses impounded, stating that "a genuine concern for the safety of these jurors bars any release of identifying data."

The publisher appealed the trial court's ruling, claiming the newspaper had a right to the information under the First Amendment and the common-law right of access to judicial records. In Massachusetts, the right of public access to judicial records is governed by overlapping constitutional, statutory, and common-law rules. Although there is no statutory right to the names and addresses of members of a jury panel, Massachusetts has always recognized a common-law right of access to judicial records. However, that right is not absolute and must yield to a trial judge's decision to impound records for "good cause."

In this case, the judge based his impoundment order on the following facts: (1) during the trial one of the Commonwealth's principal witnesses, the defendant's girlfriend, was shot at in her car prior to giving testimony; (2) a juror was discharged from her duty because she was so fearful for her safety; and (3) immediately after the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, the defendant's mother's house was sprayed with gunfire ostensibly in response to that verdict. The SJC found there was no abuse of discretion in the trial court's ruling because, "the safety of jurors is crucial to the functioning of the judicial system. If jurors doubt the system's ability to protect them from violence, cooperative service is discouraged and public confidence in the rule of law diminished. "