Press Has Right to Juror Data, Court Affirms : Law: In case stemming from a San Diego County murder trial, an appeal court rules that juror questionnaires can't be kept from the media.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emphasizing the public's right to know, a state appellate court in San Diego ruled Tuesday that the press has the right to read and report about questionnaires commonly used to help pick juries in complex cases, especially when the forms are used in capital cases.

In a decision that grew out of the murder trial this year of Roberta Pearce, an Escondido woman convicted of hiring two teen-age boys to kill her husband, the 4th District Court of Appeal said a Vista judge was wrong to keep secret the forms prospective jurors had answered.

In its unanimous opinion, the three-judge panel said the federal Constitution demands that the process of picking a jury be done in public. The questionnaires, which have become increasingly popular in complex cases because of the wealth of information they provide lawyers, are just a tool in that process, the court said.

The Constitution also guarantees jurors a right to privacy and defendants the right to a fair trial. But those rights are best guaranteed on a case-by-case basis, not through a blanket secrecy rule, the court said.

The decision was the first in California to expressly rule that the questionnaires have to be made public.

Harold W. Fuson Jr., a lawyer for the Copley Press, which publishes the San Diego Union and Tribune and brought the suit, said there is no question that questionnaires make jury selection go faster, because they provide lawyers with so much data about the jury pool.

But, he said, the "notion that they would be even better if they were also secret is a serious obstacle to the public's right to observe the process," which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in a 1984 opinion in a Riverside case.

"We simply felt that, if we didn't dig in our heels and do whatever we could to disabuse (judges) of the notion (that the forms were secret), that the (selection) process as a practical matter would become secret in this county in difficult, high-profile cases," Fuson said.

The effect of the ruling may, however, be limited because of Proposition 115, the sweeping ballot measure voters approved in June that calls for a variety of changes in criminal case procedure.

The measure, whose legality is being tested before the state Supreme Court, does away with individual juror questioning when lawyers seek to dismiss jurors without cause--so there may be a decreased need for questionnaires.

The ruling also did not order the release of the questionnaires in the Pearce case itself. Justice William L. Todd Jr., who wrote the court's opinion, said the new rule applied only to new cases.

Roberta Pearce was convicted of first-degree murder March 12 in the death of her husband, Wayne Pearce, and was sentenced May 11 by Mitchell to life in prison without parole.

The case drew wide press attention. The Copley Press brought the suit after Vista Superior Court Judge Franklin Mitchell refused its request to release the questionnaires in the case, which had been given to about 300 prospective jurors.

Todd said, however, that a judge cannot keep the forms secret because of the constitutional guarantee that trials be held in public.

Instead, he said, the forms must say somewhere on them that they will be part of the public record.

And, he said, a judge is required to release an individual juror's form as that juror is called for questioning. The judge must release the forms of jurors who were in the pool but not called for questioning when jury selection is complete, he said.

Certain information need not be released, however--telephone numbers, driver's license numbers and Social Security numbers. Todd said those numbers were not relevant to jury service, only to the internal court management of jury pools.

A juror worried about the disclosure of embarrassing information can ask to have a closed-door hearing with the judge, Todd said. A defendant worried about ensuring a fair trial must show specifically why release of the forms would threaten that right, he said.

Justice Daniel J. Kremer concurred in the opinion.

Justice Gilbert Nares also concurred, but added a separate opinion saying that the notice to jurors that the forms are public record should be in bold type at the beginning of the questionnaire.

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