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Threats, slurs and menace: Far-right websites target Fulton County grand jurors

A sheriff's deputy stands guard near the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Monday. Authorities in Georgia said Thursday they're investigating threats targeting members of the grand jury that indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies.
Alex Slitz
/
AP
A sheriff's deputy stands guard near the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Monday. Authorities in Georgia said Thursday they're investigating threats targeting members of the grand jury that indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies.

Before many people had a chance to fully read through the Fulton County, Ga., indictment against former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants, malicious online actors had already done their work.

On a far-right website, where the QAnon conspiracy theory originated, an anonymous user on Tuesday shared a list of the 23 grand jurors with their supposed full names, ages and addresses. Amid a torrent of other posts speculating on the race and religion of the jurors, and rife with derogatory slurs, the implication was clear: This was a target list.

In Georgia — unlike in federal cases, for example — it is standard practice to list the names of grand jurors in indictments. But given the high profile nature of this case and an increasing appetite among Americans for political violence, some are wondering whether more might have been done to safeguard jurors' privacy.

"I don't know what the jurors knew before going into this," said Sara Aniano, disinformation analyst at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "If they were briefed on the risks, then maybe that's all that could have been done."

So far, Aniano said the list of jurors' supposed personal information has not been widely circulated. She said she found it on only three social media platforms, popular with the QAnon and MAGA communities.

Nonetheless, she said it's still concerning.

"It doesn't take all that much to get that information into the wrong hands, especially if they know where to go," she said. "And it doesn't take many wrong hands to lead to harassment or potentially violence."

On Thursday, the Fulton County Sheriff's Office acknowledged that jurors were doxed, meaning that their personal or private identifying information was published online without their consent.

"As the lead agency, our investigators are working closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to track down the origin of threats in Fulton County and other jurisdictions," the agency said in a written statement. It was not immediately clear whether the agency was aware of any specific threats resulting from the doxing.

NPR attempted to contact the 23 grand jurors by phone, but none returned messages.

Fever pitch

As the 2024 election draws closer, and as legal cases against Trump mount, the level of violent rhetoric particularly in far-right social media sites has reached a fever pitch. Prosecutors, judges and even federal employees writ large have been subjected to threats and harassment. The U.S. Marshals Service, which provides protection to federal judges, prosecutors, court staff and jurors, reported that there were 3,706 reported threats and inappropriate communications directed at federal judges and court personnel in 2022. That's more than a threefold increase since 2015.

But doxing of grand jurors in Georgia has raised fresh concerns. First, that regular citizens may also be targeted online and offline simply for carrying out their civic duty. And second, that states may not be keeping up with the threat landscape to ensure that the public is kept safe.

"I go back even 50 years ago, a lot of local newspapers would publish the name of potential jurors, their occupation, whether they were kept on the jury or not ... and it was safe to do that," said Sally Holewa, state court administrator for North Dakota and chair of the Policy Committee for the Conference of State Court Administrators. "And I think now, in this era where people are so convinced that there is some hidden machinations behind everything, that it's becoming too easy to target people you don't even know. And I wish from a court perspective there was something we can do about that."

How courts have protected jurors

In the past, courts have relied primarily on two techniques to protect jurors in high-profile cases, said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts. Particularly in trials involving organized crime outfits, where there have been concerns of bribery or harassment of jurors, judges have been able to sequester juries or keep jurors' names sealed for set periods of time.

In Fulton County, potential safety risks were not discussed during the public portion of grand jury selection. But former prosecutors say grand jurors are typically offered law enforcement escorts to their cars as needed.

Hannaford-Agor said those techniques may not be sufficient to address the current environment. With doxing and an ever-churning, angry online milieu that has radicalizedsome individuals into committing acts of violence, the source of the threat has become more "ephemeral," and harder to focus in on.

"My professional job is thinking about jurors in high-profile cases, and how do you support jurors and how do you support the jury?" Hannaford-Agor said. "This was not on my radar screen."

At least one state, however, has taken steps that may protect jurors from this risk. In 2021, Oregon passed a law making all jurors anonymous to the public, though their names are disclosed to the parties to the case.

Ultimately, Holewa said she worries that if courts fail to address the reality of extremist violence against jurors, it will become harder to fill the jury box.

"We are going to recommend that every state have a rule on [allowing] anonymous jurors," she said. Without that, she says ordinary citizens will face a conundrum. "Because they want to do... their civic duty. But it also puts [them in] a horrible spot because once this happens, everybody's afraid to come in [to report for jury duty]."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
Sam Gringlas/WABE
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