'New territory in Georgia,' as prosecutors want jurors' names shielded in Trump case
Updated September 8, 2023 at 4:26 PM ET
ATLANTA — Fulton County prosecutors want a judge to restrict defendants, the media and anyone else from publicizing the identities of future jurors in the Georgia criminal case focused on former President Donald Trump.
That request comes after members of the grand jury that indicted Trump and his allies in August for a sweeping racketeering conspiracy had their personal information published on a far-right website.
District Attorney Fani Willis is asking Fulton Superior Judge Scott McAfee to prevent anyone from sharing the likeness or identifying personal information of prospective jurors or jurors in the election interference trial.
"It is clearly foreseeable that trial jurors will likely be doxed should their names be made public," Willis wrote in her motion Wednesday. "If that were to happen, the effect on jurors' ability to decide the issues before them impartially and without outside influence would undoubtedly be placed in jeopardy."
In an attached affidavit, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum wrote that the grand jurors were subject to harassment and threats after their home addresses, phone numbers and vehicle information were posted on a website operated by a Russian company.
At that point, Schierbaum wrote that local law enforcement enacted an operational plan to protect grand jurors, which he says is now straining agency resources. He did not detail what that security entails.
WABE reported in July that Georgia law requires that indictments list the names of grand jurors, even in controversial cases, but the Atlanta chief's affidavit suggests law enforcement took these extra steps to protect their safety only after the grand jurors had been doxed.
Doxing is a term for when a person's private information is posted online without permission to shame, embarrass or target them.
An investigator in the district attorney's office also concluded that Willis and her family's personal information was also posted on the same website, along with racist and derogatory comments. Willis is Black.
The investigator, Gerald Walsh, wrote that the website is known to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the site has refused to take down any of the information.
"The doxing of both the grand jurors and the District Attorney are permanent," Schierbaum wrote.
Juror names are typically made public in Georgia
There has not been precedent in Georgia for sealing the names of jurors or grand jurors in Georgia.
Then this week, the names of grand jurors were not listed in a racketeering indictment charging activists opposing a controversial Atlanta police training center.
The attorney general's office, which brought that case in Fulton County, Ga., moved to have those names sealed, citing a request from the jurors, who feared "harassment or retribution," according to a court order obtained by WABE.
"Georgia law governing the form of an indictment does not prevent the redaction of the names of Grand Jurors on the public record, so long as the names of the Grand Jurors are listed on the original indictment," Fulton Superior Judge Emily Richardson wrote.
The sealing order is in effect for 30 days and can be renewed or retracted by the judge ultimately assigned to preside over the case.
"We're in new territory in Georgia," says Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, as judges, jurors and court staff are facing growing harassment and officials in Georgia are beginning to look for novel ways to respond.
He says the names of trial jurors have traditionally been public information, at least after a verdict, if not at the onset.
While Willis' motion does not seem to be asking a judge to formally seal the names, she is asking for an order to prevent the dissemination of "any verbal or written descriptions of any information that would assist persons in determining the identity of any jurors or prospective jurors."
In August, Skandalakis said transparency is a bedrock of Georgia's justice system, but it may be worth asking whether it's time for the legislature or the courts to consider mechanisms to protect jurors in specific cases.
"We have an interest in making sure that people are willing to serve," Skandalakis said. "And if something makes it dangerous or makes people not want to participate, that is going to impact all of us as citizens."
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