By Elaine Hargrove-Simon, Silha Fellow and Bulletin editor
Four reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer were found in contempt and sentenced in June 2002 for violating a court order not to "contact or attempt to interview" any member of the jury of the New Jersey murder trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander, who was charged with hiring a hit man to kill his wife, Carol. The trial ended on November 13, 2001 in a mistrial.
In July 2001, before the Neulander trial began, Camden County, N.J. trial Judge Linda G. Baxter issued an order forbidding the media to publish the names of the jurors, and barring them from contacting jurors, even after they would be discharged. She further prohibited jurors from speaking with journalists. The Inquirer asked Baxter on two occasions to lift her order. She refused to do so. The Inquirer went twice to New Jersey appellate division to appeal Baxter's order, but was unsuccessful.
When the jurors were discharged on November 13, the Inquirer, together with NBC news, again asked Baxter to lift the order. She again denied the request. Inquirer reporters nevertheless obtained interviews with members of the jury. On November 15, the Inquirer published a story about the Neulander mistrial, naming members of the jury and including information from interviews with them. Contempt proceedings were brought against the reporters in Superior Court in May. Judge Theodore Z. Davis found the four Inquirer reporters guilty of violating Baxter's order and held them in contempt on June 17.
Davis found that George Anastasia, Dwight Ott, and Emilie Lounsberry had contacted and spoken with members of the jury, and that Joseph A. Gambardello had published information that revealed the identity of members of the jury. Davis said that Baxter's order was clear and that the reporters were aware of it. The Inquirer's executive editor, Walker Lundy, said that the newspaper would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. (Before he was named editor of the Inquirer in November 2001, Lundy had edited of the St Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota.)
On July 20, based on a ruling handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court in April, Davis suspended the 180-day jail terms originally given to Anastasia, Lounsberry and Ott, provided they perform five to ten days of community service. They were also fined $1000 each, as was Gambardello. The maximum penalty for contempt in New Jersey is six months in jail and a $1000 fine. Another writer, Carol Saline of the Philadelphia Magazine, was also found in contempt for talking to a juror while the trial was in progress. She was given a $1000 fine and a 30-day suspended sentence.
New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices James Coleman, Jaynee La Vecchia, Peter Verniero, and James Zazzali, which was issued in July (see In re: Application of Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 2002 N.J. LEXIS 1074). Because jurors' names are part of the public record, Stein wrote, the ban on naming the jurors could not stand. However, jurors' deliberations "are conducted in secrecy to preserve the integrity of the jury process," and therefore the prohibition on contacting the jurors until after the retrial was constitutional. Particularly in the case of a mistrial, when a new jury will be selected and the case tried again, it is important that the deliberations of the first jury be kept secret so that the prosecution will not have an undue advantage in presenting the case, he wrote.
Justice Virginia Long, joined by Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz, concurred in part, but added that the restriction placed on the jurors violated their First Amendment rights, particularly when the trial had been carried, gavel-to-gavel, on television and the Internet. "No aspect of this case has escaped public discourse, " Long wrote. "Thus, it is extremely unlikely that any comments made by former jurors would give even a crumb of new insight to a moderately competent prosecutorial team."
A retrial in the Neulander murder case has been scheduled for September 2002 in Monmouth County. The venue was changed because Neulander's attorneys believe that the publicity surrounding the case made a fair trial impossible in its present location.