Monday, September 20, 2010

Convicted Murderer Caught With Jury List...Nice.

Morning Call reporter Riley Yates supplies the story of the convicted murderer caught trying to carry off a list of the names of the jurors who convicted him. Here's the story:

"A Philadelphia man convicted Thursday of a Bethlehem murder was caught after his trial trying to take away a list of the jurors in his case, Northampton County Court officials said. 

Angel L. Echevarria (pic, left) never got the list back to his county prison cell because sheriff's deputies found it when they searched the paperwork he was carrying. But the discovery sparked an investigation to ensure he hadn't copied or disseminated a document that contained the names, hometowns and occupations of jurors.  The scare highlighted the difficult balance the court must strike daily between the public nature of court proceedings and the desire to keep jurors' privacy and safety protected.

Echevarria claimed the document had gotten among his papers by chance, and authorities believe there is no danger to jurors, said Northampton County Judge Paula Roscioli, who presided over the case.  'At this point, we're all satisfied that he never had an opportunity to have that list,' [Judge] Roscioli said Friday. 'We don't like the fact that it ever got into his possession, but our system worked because we found it.'

Court officials say they don't want residents to avoid serving on juries because of fears their identities will be compromised. But the names of jurors are not secret, with the public's right to the information protected by law. Go to the Northampton County criminal clerk's office and you can routinely find the list of jurors' names among court files — though Echevarria's file lacked it Friday afternoon.  After a four-day trial, Echevarria was found guilty of felony murder and more than two dozen other charges in the July 26, 2007, botched robbery of south Bethlehem drug dealer James Garcia. Garcia's friend, Daniel Rivera, 34, of Tampa, Fla., was killed in the heist gone wrong.

The trial was conducted under tighter security than usual, with a metal detector posted at the courtroom entrance and deputy sheriffs signing in visitors. Prosecutors said Echevarria was one of four men involved in the robbery. One has never been identified.

The list of jurors was uncovered during a routine search of Echevarria after he was led out of the courtroom Thursday evening, officials said. Court Administrator James Onembo said prisoners leaving court are checked for contraband twice for safety reasons: once by deputy sheriffs, and again when they return to the prison.

Defendants participate in the selection of their juries and would have access to jury lists during that process. But defendants may not keep the lists, Onembo said.

Roscioli said after the list was discovered on Echevarria, she immediately ordered his cell searched, and his phone and visitors' records reviewed. The search did not uncover anything of concern to authorities, she said.  'There's no indication that he was attempting to do anything with [the list] at this point in time,' Roscioli said. On Friday morning, Echevarria was hauled before Roscioli because of the list. He said it was inadvertently among his papers and that he was planning 'nothing' with it. His defense attorney, Christopher Shipman, said he did not know how Echevarria ended up with it.

Roscioli said it was the second time Echevarria was caught by deputies trying to remove something that he shouldn't have. Earlier in the trial, she said, he tried to take a pen back to the prison.  By Friday afternoon, Onembo said he had called the 12 jurors and the two alternates to inform them of what had happened. Roscioli said she plans to discuss the incident with the county's bench, but believes the court's policies are working.

Upon arriving for jury duty, potential jurors fill out detailed questionnaires that are treated confidentially and destroyed afterward. But under a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling, jurors' names are part of the public record, though not their addresses.  The opinion, based on the First Amendment, said names can only be withheld by the trial court if it finds 'the closure is essential to preserve higher values.'  The ruling did not say whether other jury information — such as hometowns or occupations — is public, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Some courthouses may have policies to provide that information, while others may not, she said.

Officials with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts noted that a state commission has recommended rules to better protect jury privacy during jury selection. Among the ideas: giving judges the discretion to redact identifying information about jurors, such as birthdates, addresses or telephone numbers, from materials provided to defendants.

Shira Goodman, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts' associate director, said incidents like Echevarria's can add to the public's reluctance to serve on a jury.  'It's certainly scary and you don't want people to have another reason not to serve,' Goodman said. But she added she believes such occurrences are an aberration. One of the reasons this is so shocking is that it's so unusual,' she said.

Echevarria, 39, is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 28. For the felony murder charge, he is guaranteed to receive life in prison without parole."
The big issue at local news websites has been juror and witness intimidation.  This story is chilling in that sense, on the other hand, we've seen situations where juror misconduct or fraud nullify verdicts. It's not a stretch to think that Echevarria has a rational basis for wanting to have this information, while the reality is his lawyer, and any subsequent lawyer will have access to the names.

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